Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a hand grenade blast during the Vietnam War but went on to become a U.S. senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday. He was 79 years old.
Cleland died of congestive heart failure at his Atlanta home, according to his personal assistant Linda Dean.
Cleland, a Democrat, served one term in the United States Senate, losing re-election to Republican Saxby Chambliss in 2002. He also served as the administrator of the United States Veterans Administration, as the Secretary of State of Georgia, and as a state senator in Georgia.
Cleland was a United States Army captain in Vietnam in 1968 when he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a fallen grenade. For years, Cleland blamed himself for dropping the grenade, but in 1999, he learned that it had been dropped by another soldier.
After the Chambliss campaign aired a commercial, featuring images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned Cleland’s commitment to defense and Homeland Security, Cleland’s loss in the Senate sparked long-lasting controversy. Senator John McCain was among those who slammed his Republican colleague’s move.
Cleland also led the United States Veterans Administration, a position he held from 1977 to 1981 after being appointed by President Jimmy Carter. Cleland was a member of the Georgia Senate from 1971 to 1975 and Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1983 to 1996. Cleland, a Lithonia native, was severely injured on April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh, while reaching for a grenade he thought had fallen from his belt when he jumped from a helicopter.
Cleland wrote that after fellow soldiers made frantic efforts to stop his bleeding and he was helicoptered back to a field hospital, he begged a doctor to save one of his legs, but there weren’t enough left.
In a 1999 interview, he said, “What poured salt into my wounds was the possibility that it could have been my grenade.” Later that year, former Marine Cpl. David Lloyd, who claimed to have been one of the first to arrive at 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.”
Prior to Vietnam, Cleland had been a successful college swimmer and basketball player, standing 6-foot-2 and developing an interest in politics. Cleland, who returned home as a triple amputee, recalled being depressed and concerned about his future, but 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.”’
Nonetheless, he was elected to the state Senate, joining a group of young senators that included Barnes, the future governor. After a failed bid for lieutenant governor in 1974 and a stint as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Cleland was elected Georgia Secretary of State in 1982.
A dozen years later, he chose to run for the seat of retiring Senator Sam Nunn, but he only served one term. Prior to the devastating Chambliss ad, polls showed he was leading in his re-election bid.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, the first Democrat to hold the seat since Cleland’s defeat, referred to him as a “hero, patriot, public servant, and friend.” Cleland also voted to authorize President George W. Bush’s plan to go to war in Iraq, but later expressed regret, becoming a harsh critic of Bush’s Iraq policy and comparing American involvement to Vietnam.
Cleland’s longtime deputy secretary of state and Senate chief of staff, H. Wayne Howell, said Cleland voted to authorize the Iraq war only after demanding changes.
Cleland later served as a director of the Export-Import Bank and was appointed secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Barack Obama.
Cleland wrote in his memoir that through crises and defeats, he “learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.”