ATLANTA — Former Georgia U.S. Sen. and Secretary of State Max Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79.
The Washington Post reported Cleland, who also served as head of the U.S. Veterans Administration, died at his home in Atlanta from congestive heart failure.
President Joe Biden called Cleland “an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered.”
On April 8, 1968, during the Vietnam War, Cleland lost his right forearm arm and both legs after a grenade exploded near his unit during the Battle of Khe Sanh. The grenade had fallen off a flak jacket of one of Cleland’s fellow soldiers during a helicopter landing.
“As a 25-year-old serving in the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Max lost both of his legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion at Khe Sanh,” Biden said. “After grueling months in the hospital, enduring multiple surgeries and a long road back to recovery, Max turned his pain into purpose.”
Cleland returned to Georgia after his injuries, and served as a state senator from 1971 to 1975. He was the administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.
Cleland then served 14 years as Georgia secretary of state from 1982 to 1996. When longtime Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn retired, Cleland ran for the seat, defeating Republican Guy Millner. Cleland and Biden served together at that time.
Cleland served one term in the Senate, losing his seat in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss.
“He continued his distinguished public service, becoming a lifelong champion of the dignity and rights of working people and America’s wounded veterans,” Biden said. “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.”
Cleland supported fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry in his 2004 presidential bid. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Cleland to serve as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Cleland served in that position until Obama left office.
Upon news of Cleland’s passing, tributes immediately began pouring in from elected officials and others across the country.
“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.” — U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.
“Marty, the girls, and I join Georgians in mourning the loss of a great patriot, Max Cleland. Senator Cleland’s service to our state, nation, and his fellow veterans was defined by his optimism, grit, and determination to give hardworking Georgians a better chance to achieve the American dream. Max’s example of persevering through adversity will continue to inspire generations of Georgians for years to come.” — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp
“Max Cleland was a hero of mine. I am very sad we have lost such an amazing American. He said. ‘To live is to suffer. To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.’ ” — U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
“U.S. Senator Max Cleland was a great American and a great Georgian. He served our nation honorably both abroad and domestically. I’m grateful to have been able to call him a friend and will miss his leadership and wisdom.” — Robb Pitts, chairman, Fulton County Commission
“U.S. Senator Max Cleland will be deeply missed. He was a pillar in the Democratic Party, a defender of democracy, and an advocate for our veterans. A treasure has moved on to glory. Praying for his family and friends and all those whose lives he touched.” — Felicia Moore, Atlanta City Council president, mayoral candidate
“Senator Cleland epitomized the values of service and patriotism. As a Georgian and as the daughter of a veteran, I know that our nation is better for his leadership. Praying for his family and loved ones.” — State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta
“U.S. Senator Max Cleland sacrificed for and served Georgia and our nation with true integrity. He defended democracy, spoke up for veterans and embodied a quiet dignity that lifted all who knew him. God’s peace to his family and friends as he takes rest from his labors.” — Stacey Abrams, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate
“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.” — U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia
“The indefatigable Senator Max Cleland of Lithonia, Georgia, was a giant of a human being who, in overcoming all adversity, showed us how to build a winning life. Although our paths did not cross frequently, often when we saw each other Max would grab me and bestow a big hug, and I would hug him right back. Highly accomplished, Max also exuded warmth and positivity, and treated all with kindness. I salute Max for a life well lived, and we will miss him greatly. My prayers go out to his entire family.” — U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Stone Mountain
“Senator Max Cleland was an American hero who overcame unimaginable adversity and dedicated his life to serving others. His patriotism, commitment to public service, and love for Georgia were unmatched, and his contributions to our state and nation – particularly for our servicemembers, veterans, and their families – will be felt for generations to come. All Georgians join Senator Cleland’s family, friends, and those who loved him in mourning his passing. He will be truly missed.” — U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.