Vietnam vet won't let disability affect career

CONYERS — As a former high school athlete, Max Cleland loved to compete. He never let the loss of an arm and both legs in Vietnam stop him and it was that competitive spirit that led the former third baseman from Lithonia High School to eventually become a U.S. senator.

Cleland was born to Hugh and Juanita Cleland in August 1942. The couple nurtued their only child with a great passion for the outdoors, which inevitably enticed Cleland into sports.

"I loved basketball," Cleland said. "But I also played baseball and tennis. I was lead-off hitter and third baseman for four years at Lithonia High School."

In 1960, Cleland was named outstanding senior of Lithonia High School for his achievements in athletics and the classroom. He later earned a bachelor's degree from Stetson University and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army through its ROTC program.

Trained as a signal officer, Cleland volunteered for paratrooper training and made a few admittedly bloodcurdling jumps, but he soon realized the whump, whump, whump of air mobility (helicopters) was the place to be for career-oriented officers.

"I volunteered for the First Air Cavalry Division," Cleland said. "Helicopter warfare was a new concept and I wanted to be in Vietnam with the First Cav, but a new commander of the signal school, Brig. Gen. Tom Rienzi, wanted me to be his aide."

Cleland accepted the position as the general's aide, but with a clear understanding that he would go to Vietnam. One year later, Cleland called his parents to inform them their only child was off to war. Both cried.

"By the fall of '67 we knew the North Vietnamese were reinforcing for a major offensive, but we didn't know when they'd strike," he said. "The mortar and rocket attacks increased; then the enemy unleashed their Tet Offensive on Jan. 31, 1968. By the next day the whole country was aflame."

Amidst the chaos of combat, Cleland was promoted to captain. "My friends always said that if I ever made captain the war would go to hell in a hand-basket. Well, I guess they were right."

After long and precarious battles near Hue, Cleland entered military history as a participant in Operation Pegasus, the hell-bent-for-leather assault to relieve the Marines from the North Vietnamese Siege at Khe Sanh.

"The B-52s bombed the countryside into a moonscape before our choppers went in, all 400 of them," Cleland said. "I set up my command post in a bomb crater, nearly 30 feet deep. We lost 250 Air Cav troops in early April, but when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, Vietnam was pushed to the backburner of national and international news, and so were we."

On April 8, Cleland disembarked from a chopper and spotted a grenade on the ground. He explained soldiers bend grenade pins to avoid accidental detonations, but a replacement pin had been not secured properly, which caused the grenade to arm.

Not knowing the grenade was armed, Cleland bent over to pick up the grenade with his right hand.

The explosion threw him backward. On his back, ears ringing and bleary eyed, Cleland gazed hazily at his right hand. It was gone. So was his forearm. He tried to stand, but couldn't. His legs were shredded like paper. He'd eventually lose both. But he could still hear, things like: "Get a med-evac chopper in here! Hang on, Captain! Where's the medic? You'll make it, Captain! Just hang on, hang on!"

During five hours of surgery and 41 pints of blood at the 38th Surgical Field Hospital at Quang Tri, Capt. Cleland hung on, and he made it.

After a year and a half of hospitals and surgeries, Cleland "walked" across the lawn at his home in Lithonia. "They were artificial legs," Cleland said. "But I ‘walked' into my house."

On Christmas Eve 1968, Cleland received a manila folder in the mail with the news that he'd been discharged from the Army.

"That's how they notified me," Cleland said. "In a manila folder left over from World War II; and I'm sitting there thinking, ‘Yeah, Merry dang Christmas, soldier.'"

Cleland received accolades and received the Silver Star and Bronze Star along with other tributes. He was even given a periodic, "We're glad you're home, Cleland," but he never received what he needed — a job.

"So I'm sitting there at 25 or 26 years old, no job, no future, no car, no girlfriend, no cash, no hope, and I figured that's a great time to run for the state Senate," he said.

Nobody gave Cleland a prayer to win — at 28 years old he became the youngest state senator in Georgia.

From 1971 to 1975, Cleland served in the Georgia Senate. President Jimmy Carter appointed him as administrator to the United States Veterans Administration from 1977 to 1981. From 1983 to 1997, he served as Georgia's Secretary of State under Govs. Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller, going on to win and lose friends in the trenches of politics as the United States senator from Georgia from 1997 to 2003. He served on the board of directors for the Export-Import Bank of the United States from 2003 to 2007 and he's also found the time to pen five books.

Today, Cleland is secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, an appointment he received in 2009 from President Barack Obama.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of A Veteran's Story, a regular feature of the Citizen. If you have a story, email him at petemecca@gmail.com.