Max Cleland dies; a senator and a veteran lost limbs in Vietnam

Updated 5 hours and 41 minutes ago

ATLANTA (AP) – Max Cleland, who lost three limbs to a hand grenade in Vietnam and later became a revolutionary leader of the Veterans Administration and United States Senator from Georgia until a attack involving his patriotism derailed his re-election, died Tuesday. He was 79 years old.

Cleland died at his Atlanta home from congestive heart failure, his personal assistant Linda Dean told The Associated Press.

Cleland was a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam when he lost his right arm and both legs while picking up a dropped grenade in 1968. He blamed himself for decades, until he learned that another soldier had let go. He also spent many months in ill-equipped hospitals to help so many wounded soldiers.

Other veterans cheered when President Jimmy Carter appointed Cleland as head of the Veterans Administration, a position he held from 1977 to 1981. true condition while Cleland was in charge, and he s ‘is striving to provide better care for veterans and their families.

Cleland’s defeat in the Senate in 2002 sparked lingering controversy after Saxby Chambliss’ campaign ran an advertisement that showed images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and questioned the Democrat’s commitment to standing up for the nation. . Senator John McCain was among those who condemned his Republican colleague’s decision.

President Joe Biden on Tuesday hailed his Senate colleague as someone with “unwavering patriotism, boundless courage and a rare character.”

“His leadership was the essential driving force behind the creation of the modern VA healthcare system, where so many of his fellow heroes have found vital support and renewed purpose thanks in large part to Max’s lasting impact,” Biden said. in a statement.

President Bill Clinton hailed Cleland as an extraordinary public servant, saying, “I will forever be inspired by the strength he has shown in supporting normalization with Vietnam after making deep personal sacrifices during the war.

A native of the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, Cleland was seriously injured on April 8, 1968, near Khe Sanh, as he grabbed the grenade he thought fell from his belt when jumping from a helicopter.

“When my eyes cleared, I looked at my right hand. It was gone. Nothing but a shattered white bone protruded from my shredded elbow, ”Cleland wrote in his 1980 memoir,“ Strong at the Broken Places ”.

After his comrades made a frantic effort to stop his bleeding and he was flown back by helicopter to a field hospital, Cleland wrote that he begged a doctor to save one of his legs, but he didn’t. was not left enough.

“What put salt in my wounds was the possibility of knowing that it could be 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 said: ” It was my grenade, it was my grenade. ”

Cleland was an accomplished varsity swimmer and basketball player, measuring 6ft 2in and developing an interest in politics. Back home with a triple amputee, Cleland remembers being depressed and worried about his future, but 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 an interview in 2002. “No job. No hope of a job. No job offer. job. No girlfriend. No apartment. No car. And I said, ‘This is a great time to run for the State Senate.’

Cleland won a seat in the state Senate, then waged a failed 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor before Carter appointed his compatriot Georgian as head of the VA. Carter on Tuesday called Cleland “a true American hero who was no stranger to sacrifice.”

“We are grateful for his commitment to the citizens of the United States, but also for the personal role he has played in our lives,” Carter said on behalf of himself and his wife Rosalynn.

Cleland left Washington after Carter lost his re-election and in 1982 was elected Georgia’s secretary of state, a post he held for a dozen years. Then he won the Senate seat from Sam Nunn, who is retiring, but only held it for one term. Polls have shown he led his re-election efforts before Chambliss’ devastating publicity.

“Accusing me of being gentle on homeland defense and Osama bin Laden is the most vicious exploitation of a national tragedy and assassination attempt 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 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he himself was diagnosed with PTSD, decades after the explosion.

“I was totally hurt and devastated – desperate and overwhelmed,” Cleland wrote. “Just as I had been that day in April 1968 when the grenade tore off my legs and right arm. Emotionally, spiritually, physically and mentally, I was bleeding and dying. “

Cleland recovered and was director of the Export-Import Bank; later, President Barack Obama appointed him secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

John Kerry, a Democratic senator and later his party’s presidential candidate in 2004, said he and other Vietnam veterans share a special bond with Cleland.

“One of the greatest gifts we ever received was a voice on the other end of the phone, with a sixth sense to call when you needed to hear it most, saying ‘Hey brother, this is Max. ‘ For those of us who knew and loved him, Max Cleland will always be our brother, ”Kerry said in a statement.

As a senator, Cleland voted to allow 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 policies and comparing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

“He never asked me to do anything that wasn’t quite right,” H. Wayne Howell, Cleland’s longtime assistant secretary of state and chief of cabinet in the Senate.

In concluding his early memoirs, Cleland explained the title of this book, saying that through crises and defeats, “I have learned that it is possible to become strong in broken places.

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