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Politics

Former Georgia senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland has died at 79

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia has died. He was 79 years old. He lost three limbs in Vietnam, but that didn't stop him from seeking higher office, where he advocated for veterans and people with disabilities. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Molly Samuel has this remembrance.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Cleland was interested in politics before he joined the Army in the 1960s. He said he felt it was his obligation to serve in the war that cost him both legs and his right arm. He told NPR in 2009 he replayed volunteering for the mission where he lost his limbs a million times in his mind.

MAX CLELAND: April 8, 1968, at the siege of Khe Sanh, there were some 5,000 Marines pinned down in a siege.

SAMUEL: Someone getting off a helicopter in front of Cleland accidentally dropped a live grenade.

CLELAND: I got off the chopper, saw the grenade, turned around, reached for it with my right hand. My M16 was in my left hand. And the thing blew up.

SAMUEL: He said he fought for survival ever since, both physically and emotionally, as he suffered from PTSD. Still, he found meaning in public office.

CLELAND: It meant survival. It meant a purpose and destiny.

SAMUEL: He was elected to his first office as a Georgia state senator three years after his injuries. He then led the U.S. Veterans Administration under fellow Georgian President Jimmy Carter and then served as Georgia's secretary of state for 14 years before being elected to the U.S. Senate. He only served one term, though. He lost to a Republican challenger in 2002 during a race that included an ad questioning his patriotism and put him alongside Osama bin Laden.

CHUCK HAGEL: It was terrible what the Republican Party, my party did to him.

SAMUEL: Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, also a Vietnam vet, says those ads were one of the worst things he'd seen in politics.

HAGEL: And I publicly stated that I wanted it stopped.

SAMUEL: Hagel and fellow Republican John McCain stood up for Cleland.

HAGEL: The question masked Cleland's patriotism. It was just astounding to me. And these are from people who had never served our country in uniform.

SAMUEL: Speaking at The Carter Center in Atlanta in 2009, Cleland said he took his loss hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLELAND: I went down like a rock. I had been in public life, been in public service, and it had been meaningful and powerful for me. It had helped me overcome the grievous wounds of literally almost dying in Vietnam.

SAMUEL: Cleland thanked the people of Georgia in his farewell address to the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLELAND: The people of Georgia have given me a chance to live the life of my dreams here in the Senate, and now I may have the chance to live a life that exceeds my dreams. And I'm grateful for that.

SAMUEL: Democratic State Senator Nan Orrock said this morning, Cleland was loved by the people of Georgia, regardless of political affiliation.

NAN ORROCK: He was a man who demonstrated that you can overcome any adversity and serve. And he did that with a full-throated embrace of life. He loved people. He stayed active for decades battling incredible war wounds.

SAMUEL: Hagel says tributes to Cleland highlight the courage he displayed, but he thinks Cleland might have wanted to be remembered not as a hero but as someone who always tried to do his best.

HAGEL: One of the things about Max was he had a great sense of humor, and he always had a joke. He was always positive. And I think he would want to be remembered as just a good person, just a very decent, honest, good person.

SAMUEL: And that's how Republican Hagel says he'll remember his Democratic friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran Max Cleland. For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT HAMMOND JR.'S "SPOOKY COUCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.