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Opinion: Veteran and former senator Max Cleland has died, but his legacy lives on

Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland delivers a speech during a campaign appearance. Cleland died on Tuesday at age 79.
Thomas S England
Getty Images
Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee Max Cleland delivers a speech during a campaign appearance. Cleland died on Tuesday at age 79.

Max Cleland wore a Mickey Mouse watch to remind himself, he said, "not to take life too seriously." It was advice from a man who had received the Bronze and Silver Stars for valor as a young U.S. Army captain during the Vietnam War.

In April of 1968, during the Battle of Khe Sanh, he picked up a live grenade that had fallen off another soldier's belt and tried to hurl it away. It exploded first. Max Cleland lost both his legs and his right arm. He spent eight months in veterans' hospitals and rehab centers, where he also contended with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. But he found his childhood ambition to go into politics undimmed.

"I'm laying there," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017, "thinking that I wanted to run for office someday, but I don't even have a right hand to shake people's hands."

His left hand, his heart, and ready smile worked just fine.

Max Cleland was elected to state office, then led the Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgian.

At a time when veterans often felt ashamed to talk about the emotional wounds of war, Max Cleland told his own story — and made changes.

"For the first time ever," Max Cleland later wrote, "you could get combat-related pay even if you came back without visible wounds."

He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1996. Then, in 2002, his Republican challenger ran an ad that paired Cleland's voting record on homeland security bills with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein to imply the senator was somehow their ally.

Republican Sen. John McCain called the ad "worse than disgraceful. It's reprehensible." This week former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam veteran, told WABE in Atlanta, "It was terrible what the Republican Party, my party, did to him."

Cleland lost that race, and took it hard. "I went down like a rock," he said later. "I had been in public life, been in public service, and it had been meaningful and powerful for me."

But he rose once more, and President Barack Obama put Max Cleland in charge of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission in 2009. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin remembered this week that Cleland added a line from the poet Archibald MacLeish to a memorial cemetery: "We leave you our deaths; give them meaning."

Max Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79, during this week when we salute the service of veterans. He gave his life to his country, time and time again.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.