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Former Georgia U.S. senator, secretary of state dead at 79
Cleland, who also served as head of the U.S. Veterans Administration, died at his home in Atlanta
Max Cleland
Former Georgia U.S. Sen. and Secretary of State Max Cleland - photo by Tim Darnell, Capitol Beat News Service

Former Georgia U.S. Sen. and Secretary of State Max Cleland died Tuesday at the age of 79. 

The Washington Post reported Cleland, who also served as head of the U.S. Veterans Administration, died at his home in Atlanta from congestive heart failure.

President Joe Biden called Cleland “an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered.”

On April 8, 1968, during the Vietnam War, Cleland lost his right forearm arm and both legs after a grenade exploded near his unit during the Battle of Khe Sanh. The grenade had fallen off a flak jacket of one of Cleland’s fellow soldiers during a helicopter landing.

“As a 25-year-old serving in the 1st Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Max lost both of his legs and his right arm in a grenade explosion at Khe Sanh,” Biden said. “After grueling months in the hospital, enduring multiple surgeries and a long road back to recovery, Max turned his pain into purpose.”

Cleland returned to Georgia after his injuries and served as a state senator from 1971 to 1975. He was the administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. 

Cleland then served 14 years as Georgia secretary of state from 1982 to 1996. When longtime Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn retired, Cleland ran for the seat, defeating Republican Guy Millner. Cleland and Biden served together at that time.

Cleland served one term in the Senate, losing his seat in 2002 to Republican Saxby Chambliss. 

“He continued his distinguished public service, becoming a lifelong champion of the dignity and rights of working people and America’s wounded veterans,” Biden said. “His leadership was the essential driving force behind the creation of the modern VA health system, where so many of his fellow heroes have found lifesaving support and renewed purpose of their own thanks in no small part to Max’s lasting impact.”

Cleland supported fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry in his 2004 presidential bid. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Cleland to serve as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Cleland served in that position until Obama left office. 

Upon news of Cleland’s passing, tributes immediately began pouring in from local elected officials and others across the country.


-Senator Cleland was a hero, a patriot, a public servant, and a friend. His advice as I entered the Senate and in the early months of my tenure have been invaluable. Georgia and the nation will deeply miss him. Alisha and I are keeping Senator Cleland’s family in our prayers.” — U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.

 -“Marty, the girls, and I join Georgians in mourning the loss of a great patriot, Max Cleland. Senator Cleland’s service to our state, nation, and his fellow veterans was defined by his optimism, grit, and determination to give hardworking Georgians a better chance to achieve the American dream. Max’s example of persevering through adversity will continue to inspire generations of Georgians for years to come.” — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

 -The nation has lost a true giant of public service, and Georgia has lost one of our fiercest champions. My prayers are with Senator Cleland’s family and all those who loved him. Senator Cleland was a passionate patriot with a big heart for our veterans, and he always put the people of Georgia first. Georgians will long remember and admire his honorable life, legacy and contributions to our state and nation.” — U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia