"The irony was overwhelming," he said. "I mean, you know, because I could see myself saying those things and they were great and accurate at the time, but I hadn't received the second wound, the second Vietnam, the second loss of sense of meaning and purpose and direction in life.
"I would look down the hall," he added, "and I would see a younger generation, you know, missing arms, legs ... and I thought, 'Oh my God.'"
Through medication, therapy and the help of longtime friends, Cleland has recovered from the long-simmering pain. Ironically, Cleland benefitted from some of the same assistance for shell-shocked veterans that he himself pushed for as head of the Veterans Administration.
"Depression is a real thing. I mean, it takes you over. It takes over your life. And I mean, I don't want to ever, ever, ever go through anything like that again. Never," Cleland said. "And thank God for the grace of God and the help of friends and the people at Walter Reed who counseled me through it and some medication which I am no longer on but was on for a while. So, you know, I was lucky to survive all of that -- just like Vietnam."
This year, President Obama appointed Cleland as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing monuments and cemeteries in 25 foreign countries honoring the 125,000 U.S. servicemen and servicewomen buried overseas and the 95,000 U.S. forces missing in action as a result of foreign wars.
By being able to honor the fallen and their sacrifice, Cleland said he sees his life coming full circle.
"Now, I'm charged with helping to provide a sense of meaning and purpose ... that matches my own search for meaning," he told ABC News.
"Archibald MacLeish, who lost a brother in World War I who is buried in Flanders Field, said this in a wonderful poem: 'We give you our death, give them their meaning.' So it is really up to us, the living, to provide that meaning for those who have given their all for this country. And that is the way I look at it, that is the challenge that I have," Cleland said.