Senator who lost limbs in Vietnam war, became subject of an infamous ‘attack ad’
On April 8, 1968, a month before the end of his tour in Vietnam, Captain Max Cleland was ordered to set up a radio relay station on a hill near the town of Khe Sanh. He jumped out of the helicopter as it landed, saw a hand grenade on the ground and stooped to pick it up, thinking it had dropped from his belt.
As he did so the grenade exploded. ‘‘The blast jammed my eyeballs back into my skull, temporarily blinding me,’’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘‘When my eyes cleared I looked at my right hand. It was gone. Nothing but splintered white bone protruded from my shredded elbow. Then I tried to stand but I couldn’t. I looked down. My right leg and knee were gone. My left leg was a soggy mass of bloody flesh mixed with green fatigue cloth.’’
Cleland, then 25, survived, taught himself to walk with crutches and a prosthetic leg, and rebuilt his life by entering politics to champion veterans and the disabled.
A bluff, cheerful character, who has died aged 79, he rose to become a US senator, representing Georgia as a Democrat.
Then he was hit by what he described as ‘‘the second big grenade of my life’’.
Following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, President George W Bush created the Department of Homeland Security. Like most Democrats, Cleland objected to a proposal limiting its employees’ union rights. When he sought re-election the following year his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss, broadcast a commercial that became a byword for nastiness.
It impugned the patriotism of a man who had lost three limbs while serving his country (Chambliss himself had avoided the draft thanks to an old high school football injury). It accused Cleland of being soft on terrorism. It showed pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as a narrator intoned: ‘‘As America faces terrorists and extremist dictators, Max Cleland runs television ads claiming he has the courage to lead. He says he supports President Bush at every opportunity, but that’s not the truth.’’
Senior Republicans, including the Vietnam veteran John McCain, joined the widespread condemnation of the ad. So did John Kerry, who would suffer a similar assault on his patriotism and war record when he challenged Bush for the presidency in 2004.
Yet the ad worked. Cleland was defeated, triggering a long-dormant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from which it took him years to recover. ‘‘My life collapsed,’’ he said. ‘‘I went down in every way you can go down. I lost my life as I knew it.’’
Joseph Maxwell Cleland was born in Atlanta, Georgia. A star athlete at high school and college, he earned a history degree from Stetson University in Florida and a master’s degree from Emory University in Atlanta before joining the US army in 1965.
He arrived in Vietnam two years later and won a silver star for helping wounded colleagues while under rocket fire during an attack on his command post near Khe Sanh. It was four days afterwards that he lost both legs and his right arm when the grenade exploded (years later he discovered that another soldier, not he, had dropped it).
Back in his parents’ home, after 18 months of rehabilitation, he took stock of his life. ‘‘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’,’’ he wrote.
Although it took him 90 minutes to dress each morning, he did run for office and was elected as Georgia’s youngest senator in 1971.
In 1977 the president, Jimmy Carter appointed him head of the Veterans Administration in Washington. He refused a limousine, preferring his battered Oldsmobile. During his four-year tenure the agency began to recognise PTSD as a genuine affliction and introduced psychological counselling for veterans.
He wrote his memoirs, Strong at the Broken Places, and worked as a consultant for the film Coming Home, in which Jon Voight plays a disabled Vietnam veteran. Cleland was elected Georgia’s secretary of state in 1982 and remained in that post for 14 years until Sam Nunn announced his retirement as one of Georgia’s two senators in 1996. Cleland won the Democratic nomination and defeated his Republican opponent by 30,000 votes.
He cried the day he was sworn in. ‘‘Your dreams can come true if you continue to believe in them long enough and hard enough and never give up on them,’’ he told The Washington Post.
After losing his Senate seat in 2002, Cleland ended up in hospital. His descent into what he called ‘‘the deepest, darkest hole of my life’’ was compounded by anguish over his vote – barely three weeks before the election – to authorise Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
But he soon became a fierce critic of the Iraq war, with its echoes of Vietnam, and called it ‘‘the worst vote I ever cast’’.
Cleland recovered with the help of counselling and group therapy and became a member of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the terrorist attacks of 2001.
For three decades Cleland was cared for by his personal assistant, Linda Dean.
He never married and had no children, but he had many friends and a legion of admirers. –
‘‘My life collapsed . . . I went down in every way you can go down. I lost my life as I knew it.’’
Max Cleland on the aftermath of his election defeat.