On this Veterans Day, think of all those who have served their country, but spare a moment for one veteran in particular, Max Cleland, who won a Silver Star for heroism in combat after volunteering to serve in Vietnam and lost an arm and both legs in a combat accident. As head of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, he channeled his own physical and psychological pain to help others. He died two days ago at 79.
It’s hard to imagine now, but it was only under Cleland’s leadership that what is now known as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a legitimate condition. He suffered from depression and PTSD himself, first while recovering from his horrible wounds after the pin dropped from a fellow soldier’s grenade, which exploded as they jumped off a helicopter, and then later when his opponent questioned his commitment to the nation’s security — imagine! — when he ran for a second U.S. Senate term from Georgia after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Group therapy sessions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped him to recover his mental balance after his 2002 election loss. It was the very sort of thing he had championed as the head of the VA.
With the use of only one hand, it took him an hour and a half to get dressed each morning and, of course, he had to use a wheelchair. His travails gave him a sense of empathy, of what other veterans might be going through. But he also understood that while he needed help, he would not wallow in self-pity. “We can’t let where we’ve been dominate and control where we are headed,” he once said. “Otherwise, we live an upside-down life.” He pushed hard for the well-being of veterans, establishing counseling programs and looking out not only for veterans but also their families.
Unlike the Greatest Generation that fought in World War II, an ever-smaller percentage of Americans have served in the military these days. But Cleland felt it was his duty, just as his father had enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He chose to serve and devoted his life to helping others like him. He was a patriot.
As you read other columns on today’s opinion pages — the Marine whose Navy veteran dad survived his military service only to be killed in the mass shooting in Parkland or the retired colonel who wonders, “How do we encourage those veterans and service members who’ve been trained to ‘adapt and overcome’ to ask for help?” — think about what service to this great nation means. Remember that, between MacDill Air Force Base, Central Command and two of the largest VA centers in the nation, the Tampa Bay area is home to thousands of veterans and those who are currently serving. They deserve our respect and gratitude.
And think of the example of Max Cleland, who wrote that “I have learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.” There is a lesson in that for us all, as a people and as a nation on this Veterans Day.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.