ATLANTA (AP) – Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a hand grenade explosion in the Vietnam War but was still serving as US Senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday. He was 79 years old.
Cleland died of heart failure at his home in Atlanta, his personal assistant Linda Dean told The Associated Press.
Cleland, a Democrat, served one term in the US Senate, losing to Republican Saxby Chambliss for re-election in 2002. He has also been the Administrator of the United States Veterans Affairs Office, the Secretary of State of Georgia, and the Senator of the State of Georgia.
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Cleland was a captain in the US Army in Vietnam when, in 1968, he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a dropped grenade. For years Cleland blamed himself for dropping a grenade, but in 1999 he learned that another soldier had dropped it.
Clelland’s defeat in the Senate sparked controversy after the Chambliss campaign ran ads featuring images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned Cleland’s commitment to defense and national security. Senator John McCain was among those who condemned the move by his fellow Republican.
Cleland also headed the United States Veterans Administration, which was appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter and held that position until 1981. Cleland served in the Georgia Senate from 1971-1975 and was Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1983 to 1996.
“Max Cleland was one of the most wonderful people I have ever met in my life,” said former Georgia Governor and fellow Democrat Roy Barnes. “His sacrifice and ministry will long be remembered as the best of what it means to be Georgian and American. I will miss his laugh and good humor; his optimism in the face of tragedy and his courage to continue. “
A native of Litonia, Cleland was seriously injured on April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh when he reached for a grenade that he thought fell from his belt when he jumped from a helicopter.
“When my eyes cleared, I looked at my right hand. It’s gone. Nothing stuck out of my shattered elbow but shattered white bone, “Cleland wrote in his 1980 memoir Strong in Broken Places.
After co-workers made a desperate attempt to stop his bleeding and he was taken by helicopter to a field hospital, Cleland wrote that he begged the doctor to save one leg, but it was missing.
“Salt was poured into my wounds with the possible realization that it could have been my grenade,” he said in a 1999 interview.
But later that year, a former Marine corporal. David Lloyd, who said he was one of the first to reach Cleland after the blast, stepped forward to say that he was healing in place of another soldier who was sobbing uncontrollably and said, “That was my grenade, that was my grenade.” …
Before Vietnam, Cleland was an accomplished swimmer and college basketball player, 6’2 ” tall and starting to take an interest in politics. Returning home disabled with a triple amputation, Cleland recalled that he was depressed and worried about his future, but was 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. “Unemployed. No job hope. No job offer. No girlfriend. No apartment. No car. And I said, ‘This is a great time to run for the State Senate.”
However, he won a seat in the state Senate, becoming part of a group of young senators, which included Barnes, the future governor. After an unsuccessful campaign in 1974 for lieutenant governor and his tenure as head of the VA, Cleland was elected Secretary of State of Georgia in 1982.
Twelve years later, he decided to take the place of retiring Senator Sam Nunn, but served only one term. Polls showed that he was a leader in his re-election before Chambliss’s devastating publicity.
“Accusing me of being lenient in defending the homeland and Osama bin Laden is the most brutal exploitation of national tragedy and attempted murder of characters I have ever seen,” Cleland said at the time.
Senator John Ossoff, the first Democrat to occupy the seat after Cleland’s defeat, called him “a hero, patriot, civil servant and friend.”
Cleland also voted to approve President George W. Bush’s plan to start a war in Iraq, but later said he regretted it, becoming a fierce critic of Bush’s Iraq policy and comparing America’s involvement with Vietnam.
H. Wayne Howell, longtime undersecretary of state and Senate chief of staff Cleland, said Cleland only voted to authorize the war in Iraq after demanding changes.
“He never asked me to do something that wasn’t quite right,” Howell told AP in a telephone interview Tuesday, stating that serving the country goes beyond addiction with Cleland.
“He probably had more Republican senatorial friends than Democrats,” Howell said.
Cleland later served as director of the Export-Import Bank, and President Barack Obama appointed him secretary of the American Commission on Monuments of War.
In his memoirs, Cleland said that through crises and defeats “I learned that you can become strong in broken places.”