News, Politics

Former US Senator, Vietnam veteran Max Cleland has died at 79

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., foreground, raises his hand to the crowd at a campaign rally in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002. Cleland, who lost three limbs to a Vietnam War hand grenade blast yet went on to serve as a U.S. senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. He was 79.
Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., foreground, raises his hand to the crowd at a campaign rally in downtown Atlanta, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002. Cleland, who lost three limbs to a Vietnam War hand grenade blast yet went on to serve as a U.S. senator from Georgia, died on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. He was 79.
Credit Ric Feld / AP Photo

Former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia has died at 79. Cleland lost three limbs in Vietnam, but that didn’t stop him from seeking higher office, where he served for decades, adding more Georgians to the voting rolls and advocating for veterans.

Cleland was interested in politics before he joined the military in the 1960s. He said he had felt it was his obligation to serve in the war that ultimately cost him both legs and his right arm.

In 2009 he told NPR that he replayed volunteering for the mission where he lost his limbs “a million times” in his mind. It was April 8, 1968, and he was getting out of a helicopter at the siege of Khe Sanh, following another soldier who, unbeknownst to him, had dropped a live grenade. 

“I got off the chopper saw the grenade, turned around, reached right with my right hand, my M-16 was in my left hand, and the thing blew up,” Cleland said.

He said he fought for survival ever since, both physically and emotionally, as he suffered from PTSD. 

Still, he found meaning in public office.

“It meant survival. It meant purpose and destiny,” he said.

Cleland was elected to his first office as a Georgia state Senator three years after his injuries. He led the U.S. Veterans Administration under fellow Georgian, President Jimmy Carter. And he then served as Georgia Secretary of State for 14 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate.

He served only one term, though he lost to Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss in 2002 during a race that included an ad questioning Cleland’s patriotism, putting him alongside Osama bin Laden. 

“It was terrible, what the Republican party, my party did to him,” said former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam vet.

Hagel and fellow Republican John McCain stood up for Cleland. 

“I publicly stated that I wanted it stopped,” Hagel said. “To question Max Cleveland’s patriotism was just astounding to me. And these are from people who had never served our country in uniform.”

Speaking at the Carter Center in Atlanta in 2009, Cleland said he took his loss hard.

“I went down like a rock,” he said. “I had been in public life, been in public service and it had been meaningful and powerful for me. It had helped me overcome the grievous wounds of literally almost dying in Vietnam.”

President Barack Obama later appointed Cleland secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which manages military battlefields and memorials overseas.

Tuesday morning, Democratic state Senator Nan Orrock honored Cleland at the Georgia legislature. She said he’d served the country’s veterans and helped Georgia modernize its Secretary of State office.

“He was a man who demonstrated that you can overcome any adversity and serve,” she said. “He did that with a full-throated embrace of life. He loved people. He stayed active for decades, battling incredible war wounds.”

Hagel said tributes to Cleland highlight the courage he displayed, but he thinks Cleland might have wanted to be remembered not as a hero, but as someone who always tried to do his best.

“One of the things about Max was, he had a great sense of humor,” Hagel said. “He always had a joke. He was always positive. And I think he would want to be remembered as just a good person. Just a very decent, honest, good person.”