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Max Cleland remembered as a ‘force of nature’

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Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland was remembered Wednesday as a “force of nature” who overcame horrific wounds during the Vietnam War to selflessly serve his nation in Congress and the Veterans Administration.

Cleland, a Democrat, who died last November at the age of 79, lost both legs and his right arm in 1968 after a grenade exploded near his unit during the Battle of Khe Sanh.


“Who among us could overcome what Max did in his life?” former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes said during a memorial service for Cleland at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

“Mortal men who weren’t forces of nature would never have recovered from such an event. … He pushed himself to serve the people he had fought to defend.”

Cleland returned to Georgia and served as a state senator from 1971 to 1975. He was appointed administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration by then-President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

After leaving the VA with the election of Republican President Ronald Reagan, Cleland served 14 years as Georgia secretary of state.

When longtime Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn retired in 1996, Cleland ran for the seat, defeating Republican Guy Millner. He served one term in the Senate, losing his seat in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss. 

Cleland put in one final stint of service for his country and its veterans from 2009 until 2017 as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

During Wednesday’s service, Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor in 2014 and grandson of Jimmy Carter, read five letters sent by Carter, President Joe Biden, former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran.

“Max left pieces of himself in Vietnam,” Kerry wrote. “But he came back with more – an unmatched will.”

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska also elected to the Senate in 1996, lent a spirit of bipartisanship to the service. Hagel, too, served in Vietnam.

“Even though we were from different parties, the one defining bond Max and I had … was service to our country,” Hagel said. “In our political world that is so divided and so polarized … he never let that division and polarization affect his personal relationships, his love for his country and his love for his friends.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

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