ATLANTA — Max Cleland, who lost three limbs to a hand grenade in Vietnam and later became a groundbreaking Veterans Administration chief and a U.S. senator from Georgia until an attack ad questioning his patriotism derailed his reelection, died Tuesday. He was 79.
Cleland died at his home in Atlanta from congestive heart failure, his personal assistant Linda Dean said.
Cleland was an Army captain in Vietnam when he lost his right arm and two legs while picking up a fallen grenade in 1968.
For decades, he blamed himself — until he learned that another soldier had dropped it.
He spent many months in hospitals ill-equipped to help so many wounded soldiers.
Fellow veterans cheered when President Jimmy Carter appointed Cleland to lead the Veterans Administration, a post he held from 1977 to 1981. The VA and the wider medical community recognized post-traumatic stress disorder — what had been previously been dismissed as shell-shock — as a genuine condition while Cleland was in charge, and he worked to provide veterans and their families with better care.
Cleland’s 2002 Senate loss to Republican Saxby Chambliss 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 served in the Georgia Senate from 1971-1975 and was Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1983 until 1996.
President Joe Biden, who served in the U.S. Senate with Cleland, saluted him Tuesday as someone with “unflinching patriotism, boundless courage, and rare character.”
“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,” Biden said in a statement.
President Bill Clinton praised Cleland as an extraordinary public servant, saying “I will be forever inspired by the strength he showed in supporting normalization with Vietnam after having made profound personal sacrifices during the war.”
A native of the Atlanta suburb 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.
He won the seat of retiring Sen. Sam Nunn a dozen years later, 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.
Cleland wrote in his second memoir, “Heart of a Patriot,” that he lost his fiancee, his income, and his sense of purpose when he left the Senate. He ended up back at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he himself was diagnosed with PTSD, decades after the explosion.
“I was totally wounded and wiped out – hopeless and overwhelmed,” Cleland wrote. “Just like I had been on that April day in 1968 when the grenade ripped off my legs and my right arm. Emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally, I was bleeding and dying.”
Cleland recovered and served as a director of the Export-Import Bank; later, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to be secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
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.”
As senator, Cleland 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.
“He never asked me to do anything that was not absolutely right,” H. Wayne Howell, Cleland’s longtime deputy secretary of state and chief of staff in the Senate, told the AP Tuesday in a phone interview.
In the conclusion to his first memoir, Cleland explained that book’s title, saying that through crises and defeats, “I have learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.”