Amputee War Hero U.S. Senator Still Fights for Survival
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2000 Max Cleland, 57, used to be a 6-foot-2, 215- pound athletic hunk of a guy whose youthful goal was "to be something great and to do something good with my life." An accidental grenade explosion in Vietnam 31 years ago changed his life forever, but not his mission.
A U.S. senator from Georgia today, Cleland points proudly to a life of public service accented by a career-long concern for veterans, the military and the handicapped. He often says he turned his physical and emotional scars into purpose in his life -- his "stars." His autobiography, "Strong at the Broken Places," borrows from Ernest Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places."
Cleland's life journey began in June 1967 when he arrived in Vietnam for duty as a captain in the 1st Air Cavalry Division. His unit helped lift the 76-day-long enemy siege on 5,000 Marines at Khe Sanh during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Cleland recalled being thankful to be alive and unhurt when his unit was relieved on April 5. But just three days later, and a month before he'd have rotated home, his luck ran out after he and his team had unloaded a helicopter.
As the aircraft lifted off, he saw a hand grenade on the ground. Thinking he'd dropped it, he reached to pick it up with his right hand. He never made it.
"As the story goes, the guy behind me was peppered with shrapnel, but he didn't lose any limbs," Cleland said. "He was crying and saying, 'It's my fault, my fault, my grenade, my grenade!'" Apparently the soldier had been told or scared into thinking that loosening the pins on his grenades would make them easier to pull out in combat. The pins normally come bent so they don't come loose accidentally.
"So one of his grenades with the loosened pins fell off his web gear and blew me up," said Cleland. "I've had a helluva time coming to terms with that.
"The explosion blew off my right arm and right leg instantly and mangled my left leg so badly it had to be amputated," he said. "I was lucky to survive because my windpipe was cut, front teeth were knocked out. I was a bloody mess lying there on the ground -- dying."
"I remember somebody cutting off my uniform and trying to tie a tourniquet and the screaming for a helicopter medevac," he said. He fought to stay conscious. "I figured if I lost consciousness, I wouldn't make it back. I'd lost a lot of blood. My legs were smoking. I'd been so close to the grenade that the flash burn had seared the flesh. That's probably why I didn't bleed to death right there."
When the medevac helicopter landed at an aid station, four or five doctors rushed to save his life. He would spend the next 18 months in Washington at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Veterans Administration Hospital "trying to put it all back together."
Cleland said he started "fighting like hell" to survive while lying on the ground wounded in Vietnam. "Anybody who says they're not going to fight for survival is wrong because when it's your life at stake, you're going to fight for it," he said. "I was still fighting for my survival in the hospitals. I had to fight for dignity and fight for a chance to live an independent life. I just had to fight for a long time. Every little bit of progress seemed to take years to accomplish." It took 10 years before he was able to get an apartment of his own.
He's stopped having flashbacks, but hasn't yet shaken a nagging dream of being sent back to Vietnam for a fourth or fifth tour of duty. In his dreams, he never gets out of Vietnam, even though he has orders to go home.
"I guess that's a deep psychological sense of being in prison," said Cleland, who received the Silver Star for combat gallantry and Bronze Star for meritorious service. "That's why I don't want to go back to Vietnam. A lot of guys do, but I don't, because in many ways, I was never able to leave."
He was determined to survive and run for public office. He was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1970 at age 28. He learned to drive with artificial limbs and bought a car that year. As the senate's youngest member and lone Vietnam veteran, Cleland wrote the state law that requires public facilities to be accessible to the elderly and handicapped.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, whom Cleland had met while in the state senate, appointed him to head the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs. Cleland is the youngest person and first Vietnam veteran ever to head the agency.
Of those days, he said, he's particularly proud of his role in establishing a psychological counseling program called "Vets Center." Centers were created to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems related to their Vietnam experiences.
Back in the '70s, he recalled with a smile, it seemed Vietnam veterans wanted nothing to do with the VA or any other government agency -- so the centers were disguised as nongovernment facilities. Today, more than 200 centers across the nation openly help veterans deal with the stresses and strains of service in Vietnam, as well as the Persian Gulf War and Somalia, he said.
"The centers also deal with families and the counseling service is free," he noted. "That's what I'm most proud of. I was able to call some attention to the health care needs of Vietnam veterans, but especially the psychological needs of dealing with the trauma of war."
In 1982, Georgia voters elected Cleland their secretary of State, the youngest in Georgia history. They elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1996, succeeding Sam Nunn.
"I'm honored to be alive ... and to have made it back from war. I consider myself one of the lucky ones," he told attendees at POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremonies at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery in September 1999. He mentioned he'd visited the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu in 1998 to see what was being done to identify missing U.S. servicemen.
"I think we're doing all we can, but it's never enough," he told his Arlington audience. "For those of us who were soldiers, one of our fears is that somehow we'll be forgotten. But let it be known far and wide that this nation does not forget. Does not forget its disabled veterans. Does not forget its POWs, and, for certain, does not forget its MIAs and families they represent."
The number of young people who shy from military service troubles Cleland, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The military is probably the nation's most people-oriented and people-sensitive organization, he tells young people during speaking engagements.
"The military is the greatest team I've ever been on," Cleland said. "I've played on basketball teams, baseball teams, political teams, and the military is the greatest team effort I've ever been a part of. Everybody is a part of the team and everybody looks out for the members of the team. If you want to be part of a great team, and accomplish great work, seriously look to the military.
"I have the fullest respect for those in the military," Cleland concluded. "They're putting themselves in harm's way, and we owe them an incredible debt of gratitude."