ATLANTA — Max Cleland, who lost three limbs to a Vietnam War hand grenade blast yet went on to serve as a U.S. senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday. He was 79.
Cleland died at his home in Atlanta from congestive heart failure, his personal assistant Linda Dean told The Associated Press.
Cleland, a Democrat, served one term in the U.S. Senate, losing a 2002 re-election bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss. He also served as an administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration, as Georgia Secretary of State and as a Georgia state senator.
Cleland was a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam when he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a fallen grenade in 1968. For years, Cleland blamed himself for dropping the grenade, but he learned in 1999 that another soldier had dropped it.
Cleland’s loss in the Senate generated enduring controversy after the Chambliss campaign aired a commercial that displayed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned Cleland’s commitment to defense and Homeland Security. Sen. John McCain was among those who condemned the move by his fellow Republican.
Cleland also led the United States Veterans Administration, appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and holding the post until 1981. Cleland served in the Georgia Senate from 1971-1975 and was Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1983 until 1996.
“Max Cleland was one of the most remarkable persons I have ever met in my life,” Former Georgia governor and fellow Democrat Roy Barnes said. “His sacrifice and service will long be remembered as best of what it is to be a Georgian and an American. I will miss his laughter and good cheer; his optimism in the face of tragedy and his courage to persevere.”
A native of Lithonia, Cleland suffered grievous injuries on April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh, as he reached for the grenade he thought had fallen from his belt when he jumped from a helicopter.
“When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone. Nothing but a splintered white bone protruded from my shredded elbow,” Cleland wrote in his 1980 memoir, “Strong at the Broken Places.”
After fellow soldiers made a frantic effort to stop his bleeding and he was helicoptered back to a field hospital, Cleland wrote that he begged a doctor to save one of his legs, but there wasn’t enough left.
“What poured salt into my wounds was the possible knowledge that it could have been my grenade,” he said in a 1999 interview.
But later that year, former Marine Cpl. David Lloyd, who said he was one of the first to reach Cleland after the explosion, came forward to say he treated another soldier at the scene who was sobbing uncontrollably and saying, “It was my grenade, it was my grenade.”
Before Vietnam, Cleland had been an accomplished college swimmer and basketball player, standing 6-foot-2 and beginning to develop an interest in politics. Returning home a triple-amputee, Cleland recalled being depressed and worried about his future, yet still interested in running for office.
“I sat in my mother and daddy’s living room and took stock in my life,” Cleland said in a 2002 interview. “No job. No hope of a job. No offer of a job. No girlfriend. No apartment. No car. And I said, ‘This is a great time to run for the state Senate.”‘
Nevertheless, he won a state Senate seat, becoming part of a cadre of young senators that included Barnes, the future governor. After a failed 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor and his stint heading the VA, Cleland was elected as Georgia’s Secretary of State in 1982.
A dozen years later, he opted to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, but served only one term. Polls showed he had been leading in his re-election effort before the devastating Chambliss ad.
“Accusing me of being soft on homeland defense and Osama bin Laden is the most vicious exploitation of a national tragedy and attempt at character assassination I have ever witnessed,” Cleland said at the time.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, the first Democrat to hold the seat since Cleland’s defeat, called him “a hero, a patriot, a public servant, and a friend.”
Cleland also voted to authorize President George W. Bush’s plan to go to war in Iraq, but later said he regretted it, becoming a fierce critic of Bush’s Iraq policy and likening American involvement to Vietnam.
H. Wayne Howell, Cleland’s longtime deputy secretary of state and chief of staff in the Senate, said Cleland voted to authorize the Iraq war only after demanding changes.
“He never asked me to do anything that was not absolutely right,” Howell told the AP Tuesday in a phone interview, saying service to country transcended partisanship with Cleland.
“He probably had more Republican senator friends up there than he had Democrats,” Howell said.
Cleland later served as a director of the Export-Import Bank, and was appointed by President Barack Obama to be secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
In his memoir, Cleland said that through crises and defeats, “I have learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.”
President Biden called him “an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered.”
“His leadership was the essential driving force behind the creation of the modern VA health system, where so many of his fellow heroes have found lifesaving support and renewed purpose of their own thanks in no small part to Max’s lasting impact.”