Torpy at Large: Cleland’s fight to make peace with ‘The Vietnam War’

Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he said the only “Triggers” in his room are photos of Roy Rogers’ horse. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he said the only “Triggers” in his room are photos of Roy Rogers’ horse. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

Triple-amputee reluctantly brings Ken Burns film into focus

Max Cleland said he tried to talk his friend Ken Burns out of making his opus on the Vietnam War, which will premiere Sunday night.

“This series is going to kick up dust,” Cleland told the filmmaker. “How can you deal with Vietnam without getting people pissed off? It will split the country again.”

Cleland’s torn body represents the absolute folly of that war — a freak grenade accident during a misbegotten conflict. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the specter of 18 hours of Vietnam showing on PBS gets him worked up. A couple of hours of interviewing brings up a fountain of salty language and some still-unhealed wounds.

In fact, Burns and his co-director Lynn Novick employ that passion to help kick off his TV journey.

“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering,” Cleland tells the camera, quoting Nietzsche.

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It’s fitting that the triple-amputee who headed the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter and later became a U.S. senator would be featured early in the documentary to help bring it focus. The 75-year-old Cleland is the epitome of suffering, surviving and searching.

Each Monday at 4 p.m., he and 20 other war veterans, most of them also Vietnam survivors, meet to discuss many things. At the core, they are hoping to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s also to enjoy each other’s company and to grapple with what they endured long ago.

“Vietnam vets were left without a powerful sense of meaning,” Cleland says. “We have learned that all of the reasons for the war have been dispelled. So Vietnam vets are left on their own on their own search.

“I left whole and came back unwhole. I came back different. I’m left with a perpetual search for meaning.”

On April 8, 1968, the young captain in the 1st Air Cavalry Division was getting off a helicopter when he noticed a grenade on the ground. He bent to pick it up with his right hand and was shattered by a blast.

He stayed awake as best he could and was put under at the field hospital, where he received 43 pints of blood. “I woke up with no legs and no right arm,” he said.

For 31 years, he thought it was his own grenade, his own screw up, that cost him three limbs. But an old Marine watching Cleland describe the incident on the History Channel in 1999 stepped forward to say another soldier, one who was newly arrived in country, dropped the grenade. Strangely, the revelation provided some solace.

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In 1969, after 18 months in military and VA hospitals, Cleland testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating poor responses by the Veterans Administration. For instance, it took forever to get him properly fitted for artificial legs — legs he later stopped using because they expended so much of his energy.

“The VA wasn’t ready to see the number of casualties that came from Vietnam,” Cleland told me this week. He said his testimony put him on the Huntley Brinkley Report and marked the Lithonia, Georgia, native as a “militant vet.”

Soon, the former 6-foot-3 high school basketball star was back in his parents’ house — “no job offers, no girlfriend, no future, no hope.”

Cleland says, “I’m laying there thinking that I wanted to run for office some day, but I don’t even have a right hand to shake people’s hands.”

Instead, he used his left hand and ran for state Senate in 1970. He won. It was the same year Jimmy Carter won the governor’s seat.

Later, he ran for lieutenant governor, lost and got a job at the VA. In 1976, Carter won the presidency and the 34-year-old Cleland was elevated several pay grades at the VA to be its youngest-ever chief.

One of his first missions was to get counseling for traumatized vets. Soldiers have suffered psychological trauma since the ancient Greeks, but PTSD didn’t become an official treatable diagnosis until Cleland’s watch.

Some, like Congressman Olin “Tiger” Teague of Texas were not happy, Cleland said. “He called Vietnam vets crybabies.”

A VA study released in 2015 said almost 300,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer PTSD and have twice the death rate of those who did not.

Bekh Bradley, a clinical psychologist at the VA hospital in Atlanta and head of mental health there, said a quarter of the 3,000 patients in the hospital’s PTSD specialty group are Vietnam veterans. And about 20 percent of the 20,000 vets treated for some kind of PTSD overall are Vietnam vets.

(Bradley said the crisis line is 800-273-8255. Cleland said vets can call the National Vets Center at 877-927-8387.)

After his stint as VA chief, Cleland later became Georgia's secretary of state and then a U.S. senator, losing in 2002 when Republicans questioned his patriotism. The loss sent him into depression and recurring bouts of PTSD.

“You’d think time would heal PTSD, but this stuff is ingrained in your brain,” he said. “There are unexpected triggers — a word, a sight, a sound, some music. You’re walking along on a nice day and Bam! There’s a trigger and you’re back there.”

He said there’s an old joke with Vietnam vets. “You’re asked, ‘Have you been back to Vietnam?’ Yeah, last night.”

“Guys wake up thinking the bad guys are sneaking through the wire,” he said.

Medicine and therapy have helped Cleland cope with his demons, although he said they are always there, hiding in the recesses of the reptilian part of his brain.

The old Democrat said President Donald Trump drives him crazy, so he rarely watches the news, preferring old westerns on TV. His bedroom wall is full of photos of heroes from westerns.

“The only Trigger in here is a horse,” he said, pointing to a photo of Roy Rogers atop his steed.

I asked where he’d watch the Vietnam series premiere Sunday night.

He noted that the documentary will air the same time as the Falcons-Packers game.

“I’ll tune in long enough to catch my eight seconds on screen, then I’ll go back to something positive, (quarterback) Matt Ryan and the Falcons. I need positivity in my life.”

So, Falcons, no collapses, please. Don’t let an old veteran down.