The Whole Man
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Gangale
In the Air Force, we used to joke about its four great myths: "the real Air Force," because wherever you were stationed was somehow unrepresentative of the service as a whole; "the regular crew chief," because anyone you went to for a solution was not in a position to provide it; "the big picture," because no matter the pay grade, no one was ever high enough to see it; and "the whole man," because no one had the requisite breadth and depth of skills and experiences to qualify for this description. It was axiomatic that you could serve an entire career and never come across any of these things.
A few days ago, I attended a campaign rally for Charles Brown, LtCol, USAF (Ret.), one of the "Band of Brothers," now 72 strong, veterans who are running as Democrats to take the Hill and win back Congress for the people of the United States. Also speaking at the event was Max Cleland, Capt, US Army (Ret.), former senator from Georgia. I had seen him only once on TV, when he had been head of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, and I remembered the astonishing sight of a triple-amputee playing basketball. But on this day, I got to meet him and to hear him speak, and I was astonished several more times and on much deeper levels. The first surprise was to see Charlie lean over Max and put his arms around him, and my first thought was that Charlie was going to lift him out of his wheelchair... surely not! But no, it was a hug, a hug of comradeship, one Vietnam veteran to another.
The second jolt was when it came time for me to meet the senator, to shake his hand, and to mouth the conditioned-reflex platitude of what an honor it was, and he leaned forward and pulled my arm toward him, and I realized that I was about to hug him, too. Does your senator hug you? Driving home from the rally at the Fair Oaks VFW post and the fundraising reception afterward, it occurred to me that with only his left hand remaining to him as his primary means of touching the world, it makes sense that Max compensates by pulling the world to his breast and enfolding it with his soul.
But I have jumped ahead of my story, for it was an absolute joy to hear Max speak, and to spend some time becoming acquainted with him. Here was a man of great warmth, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Here was a man who had been blown to bits serving his country in a dubious cause, and who had never stopped loving it or serving it. Here was a man, who in the prime of youth and vigor, must have spent some time wondering whether he was going to live, perhaps some time wishing that he hadn't, then some time struggling to build meaning into whatever life he had left.
Mindful that we live in a time not only when, as George Orwell predicted, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, but under the malevolent manipulations of Karl Rove and the like, falsehood is truth, courage is cowardice, and loyalty is treason, I can do no more than to let Max Cleland's record of service speak for itself. As to the man himself, I can say that as I got to know him, my dominant impression was of a man whose strength of spirit has healed his soul and triumphed over the loss of much of his body. Incredibly, the more time I spent in his presence, the less noticeable became his physical disability. At length I realized that there really had been only three myths, for I had finally met "the whole man."
Welcome home, Max.