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Max Cleland, Who Went From Wounded Warrior to US Senate, Dies

November 9, 2021 by Dan McCue
Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., foreground, raises his hand to the crowd at a campaign rally in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002. He was 79. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, file)

ATLANTA — Max Cleland, who lost three limbs to a Vietnam War hand grenade blast and later served as a U.S. senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday. 

Cleland, who was 79, died at his home in Atlanta. The cause was congestive heart failure.

During his career in public service, he also served as administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration, as Georgia secretary of state and as a Georgia state senator.

President Joe Biden described Cleland Tuesday as “an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered.”

“As a 25-year-old serving in the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Max lost both of his legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion at Khe Sanh,” Binden said. “After grueling months in the hospital, enduring multiple surgeries and a long road back to recovery, Max turned his pain into purpose.  He continued his distinguished public service, becoming a lifelong champion of the dignity and rights of working people and America’s wounded veterans.  

“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,” the president continued.

“I had the distinct honor of knowing Max as both a colleague and a friend during our six years together in the United States Senate.  He was a man of unflinching patriotism, boundless courage, and rare character.  I was proud to have Max by my side.  He will be remembered as one of Georgia’s and America’s great leaders,” Biden said.

“Max Cleland was the bold warrior with a big heart and loved by all in the Senate,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a written statement.

“Throughout his life, Max was dedicated to serving our country as a soldier in Vietnam, helping his fellow veterans as VA administrator, and as a United States senator. My thoughts are with Max Cleland’s family and all his friends who loved him. We all will miss him dearly,” Schumer said.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, the first Democrat to hold the seat since Cleland’s defeat by Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002, called him “a hero, a patriot, a public servant, and a friend.”

Cleland was a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam when he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a dropped grenade near Khe Sanh in April 1968. 

“When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone,” Cleland wrote in his 1980 memoir, “Strong at the Broken Places.”

For years, Cleland blamed himself for dropping it, but he learned from a former Army medic  in 1999 that another soldier had dropped it.

Depressed after his grave injuries, Cleland became increasingly interested in politics.

President Jimmy Carter asked Cleland to lead the United States Veterans Administration in 1977, and he stayed on until 1981. Cleland served in the Georgia Senate from 1971-1975. 

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, an office he held until 1996.

A dozen years later, he opted to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn, but served only one term after Chambliss ran negative campaign ads against him.

Since then, Cleland served as a director of the Export-Import Bank and was appointed by former President Barack Obama to be secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue.

The Associated Press contributed this report.

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