Joseph Maxwell “Max” Cleland, 79, former senator and leader of the Veterans Administration, died on Nov. 9, 2021 of congestive heart failure. Cleland, born in Georgia on Aug. 24, 1942, was a high school basketball athlete and earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stetson University in Florida in 1964 while in the ROTC program.
Becoming a captain in the U.S. Army, he was awarded the Silver Star on April 4, 1968 for exposing himself to rocket fire while assisting the wounded near Khe Sanh. Only four days later, Cleland suffered devastating personal injuries in what he later called “a freak accident of war”—stepping off a helicopter, he reached to pick up a stray hand grenade he believed he had dropped. Although he did not know it at the time, the grenade belonged to a young enlisted soldier who had lengthened the pin with the result that the pin fell out.
Cleland lost both legs and his right arm to the explosion, spending five hours in emergency surgery and receiving more than 40 pints of blood. He underwent eight months of rehabilitation, and throughout his life it took him more than 90 minutes to dress himself each morning. Cleland decided to run for politics after being stuck in his parents’ house thinking, “Well, no job. No future. No girlfriend. No car. No apartment. No money. This is a great time to run for the state Senate,” he said in a 2002 interview for the Veterans History Project.
Cleland, a moderate Democrat, became the youngest state senator in Georgia history at age 28 and was appointed director of the VA by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996 but lost his reelection bid in 2002. For many years, Cleland struggled with blaming himself for his injuries before a U.S. Marine who witnessed the explosion shared details about what happened.
Cleland was a strong advocate for survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder, which the VA began to recognize as a legitimate condition under his leadership. Cleland authored a 1980 memoir, “Strong at the Broken Places.” He never married and had no immediate surviving family. V