Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia dies at 79

Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland. (Source: Mercer University/ New Georgia Encyclopedia)
Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland. (Source: Mercer University/ New Georgia Encyclopedia)(WRDW)
Published: Nov. 9, 2021 at 9:28 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 9, 2021 at 9:29 AM EST
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ATLANTA - Max Cleland, a former U.S. senator from Georgia and Veterans Administration leader, has died.

Born Aug. 24, 1942, he died Tuesday at his Atlanta home.

Cleland spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair. Cleland was a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam when he lost an arm and two legs while picking up a fallen grenade in 1968. For years, Cleland blamed himself for dropping the grenade, but he learned in 1999 that another soldier had dropped it.

He died of congestive heart failure, according to his personal assistant.

The Democrat was administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981 and served as Georgia secretary of state from 1982 to 1996.

In 1996, Cleland won his U.S. Senate seat, gaining a reputation in Congress as a moderate. He voted in favor of some Republican budgetary and tax measures while being staunchly pro-choice and pro-environment. He was also one of the 29 Senate Democrats who backed the authorization to go to war in Iraq.

After his defeat in 2002, no Georgia Democrat would win a full term in the U.S. Senate until Jon Ossoff did so in a runoff early this year.

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

Ossoff released this statement on Cleland’s death:

“Senator Cleland was a hero, a patriot, a public servant, and a friend. His advice as I entered the Senate and in the early months of my tenure have been invaluable. Georgia and the nation will deeply miss him. Alisha and I are keeping Senator Cleland’s family in our prayers.”

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said:

“The nation has lost a true giant of public service, and Georgia has lost one of our fiercest champions. My prayers are with Senator Cleland’s family and all those who loved him. Senator Cleland was a passionate patriot with a big heart for our veterans, and he always put the people of Georgia first. Georgians will long remember and admire his honorable life, legacy and contributions to our state and nation.”

A native 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.”’

In his memoir, Cleland said that through crises and defeats, “I have learned that it is possible to become strong at the broken places.”

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