Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a Vietnam War grenade explosion, yet to serve as a US senator from Georgia, died Tuesday. He was 79 years old.
His personal assistant, Linda Dean, told The Associated Press that Cleland died of heart failure at his home in Atlanta.
Cleland, a Democrat, served one term in the US Senate, losing his 2002 re-election bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss. He also served as the Administrator of the US Veterans Administration, as Georgia’s Secretary of State and as a Georgia State Senator.
Cleland was a US Army captain in Vietnam when he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a dropped 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 defeat in the Senate generated lasting controversy after the Chambliss campaign aired an ad featuring images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and called into question Cleland’s commitment to defense and homeland security. Sen. John McClain was among those who condemned the move by his fellow Republicans.
Cleland also headed the United States Veterans Administration, which was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and held the position until 1981. Cleland served in the Georgia Senate from 1971–1975 and was Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1983 to 1996.
Former Georgia governor and fellow Democrat Roy Barnes said, “Max Cleland was one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met in my life.” “His sacrifice and service will long be remembered best for being a Georgian and an American. I will miss his laughter and joy; his optimism and his courage to persevere in the face of tragedy.”
A native of Litonia, Cleland suffered serious injuries on April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh, when he reached for a grenade he thought had fallen off his belt when he jumped from a helicopter.
“When my eyes cleared, I looked at my right hand. It was gone. Nothing but a smudged white bone protruding from my amputated elbow,” wrote Cleland in his 1980 memoir, “Strong at the Broken Places.”
After fellow soldiers made a frantic attempt to stop his bleeding and he was taken back to a field hospital, Cleland wrote that he begged a doctor to save one of his legs, but there was not enough left.
In a 1999 interview, he said, “I had the probable knowledge that it might be my hand grenade to add salt to my wounds.”
But later that year, former Marine Cpl. David Lloyd, who said he was one of the first to arrive in Cleland after the explosion, came forward to say that he had treated another soldier at the scene who was sobbing uncontrollably, saying, “This It was my grenade, it was my grenade.”
Prior to Vietnam, Cleland was an accomplished college swimmer and basketball player who stood 6-foot-2 and began to develop an interest in politics. Returning home to the triple-amputee, Cleland recalled being depressed and worried about his future, still interested in running for office.
“I sat in my mom and dad’s living room and took stock of my life,” Cleland said in a 2002 interview. “No job. No job prospect. No job offer. No girlfriend. No apartment. No car. And I said, ‘It’s a good time to run for state Senate.'”
Nevertheless, he won a state Senate seat, becoming part of a cadre of young senators that included Barnes, the future governor. After an unsuccessful 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor and head of the VA, Cleland was elected as Georgia’s secretary of state in 1982.
A dozen years later, he opted to take the seat of retired Sen. Sam Nunn, but only served one term. Polls showed he was leading his re-election effort before the disastrous Chambliss ad.
Cleland said at the time, “accusing me of defending the homeland and being soft on Osama bin Laden is a national tragedy and the most vicious exploitation of an attempt to assassinate character.”
John 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 later served as director of the Export-Import Bank, and was appointed by President Barack Obama as secretary of the U.S. War Memorial Commission.
Cleland says in his memoir that through crisis and defeat, “I have learned that it is possible to grow strong in broken places.”