Max Cleland, who lost three limbs to a hand grenade in Vietnam and later became a groundbreaking Veterans Administration chief and U.S. senator from Georgia until an attack ad questioning his patriotism derailed his reelection, died on Tuesday. He was 79.
Cleland died at his home in Atlanta 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 two legs while picking up a fallen grenade in 1968. He blamed himself for decades, until he learned that another soldier had dropped it. He also 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.
President Joe Biden saluted his Senate colleague 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,” President Biden said in a statement.
A native of the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, Cleland had been an accomplished college swimmer and basketball player, standing 6-foot-2 and developing 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.
Cleland won a state Senate seat and then ran a failed 1974 campaign for lieutenant governor before Carter named his fellow Georgian to lead the VA. Carter on Tuesday called Cleland “a true American hero who was no stranger to sacrifice.”
Cleland left Washington after Carter lost 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 of the retiring Sam Nunn, but only held it for one term.
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.
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.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.