A Survivor's Story


Dressed in boxer shorts and a Falcons T-shirt, Max Cleland rolls his wheelchair across the smooth parquet floors of his Atlanta apartment, headed for the ringing telephone. He's home on a late-summer break from the U.S. Senate, and a radio-show host is on the line. With his favorite Bible verses and cowboy posters on the walls, this place should be Cleland's refuge. But his job constantly intrudes -- and there is no refuge from the past.

"Now, you're a triple amputee?" the disc jockey asks. "I didn't know if amputee was the right word because your limbs, in the war -- it was a grenade, right?"

The grenade.

Max Cleland had hoped to talk about suburban sprawl, health care, the military. Instead, he is hurled back to April 8, 1968.

It was an Army issue M-26. A mini-bomb designed to kill anyone within 15 yards. Cleland was less than 15 inches away when it blew.

He was in Vietnam, outside Khe Sanh, on Hill 471. Cleland reached down to pick up the grenade he believed had popped off his flak jacket. The blast slammed him backward, shredding both his legs and one arm. He was 25 years old.

For more than three decades, Cleland has relived that day. And for more than three decades, he has blamed himself.

He didn't step on a land mine. He wasn't wounded in a firefight. He couldn't blame the Viet Cong or friendly fire. The Silver Star and Bronze Star medals he received only embarrassed him.

He was no hero. He blew himself up.

Inspirational words -- those of Churchill, Roosevelt and others -- would become footholds for his climb out of a deep, dark hole. Cleland would become Georgia's youngest state senator, the nation's chief of Veteran Affairs, and, in 1997, a U.S. senator. Yet no motivational one-liners could erase the simple, shameful fact: He blew himself up.

But on this day in August, the radio host's question stirs different emotions. Max Cleland no longer blames himself for the war injuries that cost him his legs and his right arm. He no longer berates himself as "stupid, stupid, stupid." He has finally learned the truth about April 8, 1968. And after 31 years, he says, "It was like another grenade, emotionally."

Max Cleland discovered he had been blaming the wrong guy.

Volunteering for 'Nam

The story of Max Cleland is, inevitably, a before-and-after story. It begins on a Main Street in a small town outside Atlanta, and it all changes on a hill far away.

Joseph Maxwell Cleland was the only son of Hugh, a car parts salesman, and Juanita, a secretary. He played basketball, tennis and trumpet at Lithonia High and was named Outstanding Senior by the Atlanta Journal. He went off to Stetson University in Florida on an ROTC scholarship, then enrolled at American University for a semester-in-Washington program. He toured the Oval Office three days before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The president's death gave him an "overwhelming sense of man's perishability" and a "sudden, compelling inner drive to serve my country."

A year of graduate school was followed by Army training and a year as a general's aide. He was 24 when he volunteered for Vietnam. On May 31, 1967, he boarded a plane, and 23 hours later, the pilot said, "If you look out the right side of the aircraft, the coast of Vietnam is in sight."

How deceptively tranquil, Cleland thought. Then a plume of smoke rose from the jungle. He landed on a tarmac next to stacks of shiny aluminum caskets.

Cleland hoped to find glory in the jungle, maybe go home a hero. But as a signals officer with the First Air Cavalry Division, overseeing telephone lines and radio transmitters, it didn't seem like a war at first. He visited Danang for ice cream and steak, danced with Red Cross girls.

On Feb. 1, 1968, the Viet Cong swarmed into South Vietnam. Many young Americans died in a rain of mortars. Then came monsoons, followed by rocket attacks. By March, the Tet offensive was under control, except for a remote village, Khe Sanh, where hordes of Marines remained under siege, prompting an Army-Marine rescue operation called Pegasus.

Cleland volunteered. He spent five days in a bomb crater, watched friendly fire kill four men, but emerged from Khe Sanh alive.

On April 8, with a month left in his tour, Cleland was ordered to set up a radio relay station on a nearby hill. A helicopter flew him and two soldiers to the treeless top of Hill 471, east of Khe Sanh. Cleland knew some of the soldiers camped there from Operation Pegasus. He told the pilot he was going to stay awhile. Maybe have a few beers with friends.

When the helicopter landed, Cleland jumped out, followed by the two soldiers. They ducked beneath the rotors and turned to watch the liftoff. Then Cleland looked down and saw a grenade. Where'd that come from? He walked toward it, bent down, and crossed the line between before and after.

Reliving a nightmare

While he lay in the rancid air of a Quonset hut field hospital, his jagged wounds were left open to drain. He floated in a haze of Demerol, dripping with sweat until they doused him in alcohol and ice cubes to cool his feverish body. He ached for lemonade; they gave him a moist cotton ball.

Four surgeons had operated for five hours, using 42 pints of blood, but they could not save his left leg, or his right leg, or his right arm. His left arm was spared because it was behind his back when the grenade blew.

William Chapman, who grew up five houses from Cleland and was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, visited the field hospital. Doctors warned he would see a man with a bleak future. "You're lucky to be alive" was all Chapman could think to say to his friend. "Yes, I know," Cleland replied.

From the start, details of the explosion were sketchy, or wrong. A daily staff journal reported that "the helicopter landed on a mine." A later report said "the source of the grenade ... could not be determined." At the time, operations officer Maj. Bill Scudder says, there appeared to be only one explanation: "It was felt that it was his grenade."

Cleland also assumed he had blown himself up. "Again and again I analyzed the scene in every detail, trying desperately to change the ending," he would write in his autobiography. "Whose grenade was it? How did the pin come out? I didn't know for sure, but each time I ended up with the same feeling. Somehow I had fumbled the ball."

Instead of returning home a hero, he came back "half a man," naked beneath a sheet on a stretcher. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he joined Ward One, the "snake pit," a way station for some of Vietnam's most severely injured soldiers. There he met "Weird" Harold and "Nasty" Jack and a motley crew of vets with damaged or missing limbs, eyes, emotions. Their macabre sense of humor made recovery a little less painful.

The men invited a stripper to the snake pit and, lacking music to accompany her gyrations, they sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." One night, they visited Blaze Starr's 2 O'Clock Club in Baltimore. A picture of Starr, her arm around a drunken Cleland, landed on the front page of the newspaper.

By day, Cleland began acclimating to "my new shape." In the morning, half awake, he'd try to throw his legs -- which now ended mid-thigh -- over the edge of the bed. He practiced writing with his left hand. He found his desire for alcohol tempered by the painful throbs the booze sent to his wounded limbs.

But the larger battles were with depression and a feeling of enormous guilt.

"I didn't feel like a legitimate hero or a legitimate battlefield casualty or a legitimate anything," he says. "I felt like there might have been something I had failed to do."

One day, he mustered the courage to look at some 8mm film he had taken in Khe Sanh.

"Vietnam really changes a fella," says Cleland's recorded voice, as shaky images fill the screen.

A 6-foot-2 man appears. With grenades hanging from his vest, he slings an M-16 over his shoulder and gives a right-handed thumbs-up as helicopters land behind him.

Cleland enviously watched his former self -- his "whole" self -- and hated the damaged man he had become.

"Because if you come back the same person you left as, you really haven't gained anything," the man on the film says. "And I'm definitely coming back a little bit different than I arrived here."

Determined to recover

Few soldiers returned home as severely damaged as Cleland. Of the 6,878 who lost limbs in Vietnam, only 52 were missing three.

Cleland decided the only route to legitimacy was to walk on two legs, and he became obsessed with returning to a height of six feet. But his legs had been severed above the knee. Walking on mechanical legs comes easier for amputees whose limbs are removed below the knee. Cleland would need the help of crutches. And for those, he needed two arms.

He went home to Georgia in a wheelchair.

Hometown friends reacted with awkward, excessive small talk or were at a loss for words. Cleland drank too much at nightclubs and found himself staring at people's shoes, resenting them.

He had lost more than three limbs. He had lost his youth, and his future. Some days, he sobbed uncontrollably. Suicide wasn't the answer. He just wanted to feel good about something. And that led to a voracious appetite for the inspirational words of others.

So he returned to Washington, to the VA Hospital, with his Bible and his motivational books and a mission: to get a prosthetic arm and a pair of legs.

"I'll never forget my first view of Max Cleland," says Jon Peters, Cleland's physical therapist at the VA. "He was very focused. Walking was just one step in the process. Max was focused, in my opinion, on accomplishing life."

Cleland learned first to use a prosthetic arm, then mastered crutches to walk on prosthetic legs. After exhausting sessions with Peters, he was climbing stairs. He found his own apartment and, soon after, a company that adapted cars for amputees.

With new limbs and a new car, Cleland returned to Georgia. Ever since his semester in Washington before the war, he had harbored dreams of entering politics. At first, he assumed his injuries would dash those dreams. But the Democratic party outside Atlanta was in shambles, with no candidates for the 1970 state senate primary. Cleland ran unopposed.

Wearing cowboy boots on his artificial feet, he visited garden clubs and diners, ending long days of campaigning with his stumps raw and bloody. He beat his Republican opponent to become, at age 28, the state's youngest senator ever. It was his first real job.

Two years later, while running for re-election, Cleland realized he'd rather be pain-free than tall. He stowed his legs in the basement in favor of a wheelchair.

In 1977, Cleland became President Jimmy Carter's outspoken chief of Veterans Affairs, then served 13 years as Georgia's secretary of state.

Along the way, he stopped ignoring the anniversary of his injury and began inviting friends to an annual April 8 party he called "Alive Day." The early years were known for booze and an aggressive roasting of the host. In 1978, friend Bill Johnstone joked, "Support Max Cleland, he can only put one hand in the till."

Cleland always laughed loudest.

When four-term Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn retired in 1996, Cleland glimpsed his future. He left his secretary of state post to run against a Republican opponent who outspent him 2-to-1.

On Jan. 7, 1997, Vice President Al Gore asked the new senators to raise their right hands -- "or your left hand, as the case may be." The gaffe didn't faze Cleland. Wide-eyed and grinning, he placed his right stump on the Bible and raised his left hand.

Afterward, he told supporters: "Your dreams can come true if you continue to believe in them long enough and hard enough and never give up on them."

The words caught in his throat. Then he broke down and cried.

Theme of inspiration

A deluge of rain and thunder shakes the auditorium windows at a housing project where a disabled Vietnam veteran introduces Cleland to a crowd of 200.

"It's been a long time since I've heard an invocation accompanied by thunderclaps," Cleland says.

The crowd laughs. Cleland beams, then winks at others on the stage to announce a federal grant. The senator feeds off a crowd's energy, and people seem drawn to him. They slap his back, kiss his cheek. They bend over and swallow his head in their arms. Some instinctively reach to shake his right hand, realizing too late it's not there. But he's used to it all. "How you doing, darling?" he says with a crinkly-eyed smile and a thumbs up.

Midway through his first term, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cleland is gaining credibility for his opinions, particularly on warfare. He supported last spring's bombing of Yugoslavia, but loudly opposed sending in ground troops because the situation "began to smell and look like Vietnam."

As one of six Vietnam vets in the Senate, he discounts notions that a "sympathy vote" helped his political career. Rather, he thinks people see a man who served his country, paid a price, and is serving again. And maybe people glean from that what he does from the mottoes tacked to his walls. In his banter and speeches, he often digs into his deep well of memorized epigrams: "Now, wasn't it so-and-so who said thus-and-such?"

"People really don't want you to save the world," he explains. "They just want to hear something interesting -- and inspiring."

Inspiration has become the theme of Cleland's life. An assassinated president inspired him to seek a chance at heroism in Vietnam. Then, on those awful days when he never left his bed, he leaned upon the motivating words of Yeats' poetry, country music songs and the Bible.

"Those are things I like to be around, whether it's inspiring quotes or inspiring people or hearing inspiring stories or speeches or seeing courageous lives," he says. "We all hunger for that, I think. We all need inspiration and motivation to live."

Dark days still descend now and then. His celebrity and grinning public persona obscure a painful battle. Doctors say losing a limb is like losing part of one's personality. The pain never dies. Fatigue is constant. Amputees have a lower life expectancy, often dying of stroke or heart attack.

To stay fit, Cleland diets aggressively and gobbles vitamins. He recently dropped 60 pounds with the help of a morning exercise routine that includes strapping himself to a board to do sit-ups and "running" laps in his bedroom atop two stacks of pillows.

But the tougher battle is with a deep sadness that lurks below the surface of his daily life. Having never married, it is a solo battle. (Cleland has, however, had girlfriends, and recently told Larry King that he can have "normal physical relations" with women.)

Cleland tries to relieve the sadness with a morning ritual of prayer and meditation. He had strayed from his faith in the early years after his injury, but now regularly attends the Methodist church and ends many conversations with "May God hold you in the palm of his hand."

And, as always, he beats back depression with a constant search for pithy bon mots. "Anything to keep my morale up," he says.

Last month, he published his second book -- "Going for the Max: 12 Principles for Living Life to the Fullest." It is a collection of stories about those who have overcome injury, epilepsy, dyslexia, interspersed with favorite saws, like this one from Gen. George Patton: "Success is how high you bounce after you hit bottom."

Indeed, as more Americans learn his story, he finds he can inspire not by hiding his wounds, but by exposing them. Nearly every day, someone calls Cleland's office to thank him just for being Max, for overcoming the loss of three limbs to become a leader.

Earlier this year, a veteran called for a much different reason.

What really happened

David Lloyd was a gung-ho 19-year-old enlisted Marine, son of a Baltimore ship worker, who went to Vietnam because he "wanted to kill Communists."

On April 8, 1968, he was in a mortar pit on a hill near Khe Sanh when he heard an explosion. Shrapnel bounced off his flak jacket. He ran to an injured officer, a man named Max Cleland.

"Hold on there, Captain," Lloyd told Cleland. "The chopper will be here in a minute."

Lloyd took off his web belt and tied it around one of Cleland's shredded legs. When medics arrived, he left to help another soldier -- one of the two who had gotten off the helicopter with Cleland.

The soldier was crying. "It was mine," he said, "it was my grenade."

According to Lloyd, the private had failed to take a precaution that experienced soldiers did when they carried M-26 grenades: They bent the pins, or taped them in place, so they couldn't accidentally dislodge. This soldier had a flak jacket full of grenades with treacherously un-bent pins, Lloyd says. "He was a walking death trap."

It never occurred to Lloyd that Cleland assumed the grenade was his. And no one ever asked Lloyd what he saw or heard. After the war, he returned to Baltimore, unwittingly carrying a secret.

Earlier this year, Lloyd was at home in Annapolis watching a TV documentary about battlefield medics when he saw Cleland on the screen, alluding to blowing himself up. Lloyd realized: He doesn't know the truth. He called Cleland's office and asked to speak to the senator.

At first, Cleland was skeptical. He had received crank calls before from people claiming to have served with him. But Lloyd was different. He didn't seem to want anything. And he described details that only someone at the explosion scene would know, such as the smoke rising off Cleland's wounds.

To be safe, Cleland had aides check Lloyd's past. They found he was indeed on Hill 471.

Last April, Cleland invited Lloyd to Atlanta for "Alive Day," now a more tepid affair ("I want to get re-elected," Cleland said). At Fort McPherson's officers club, Cleland told family and friends that Yeats was right when he compared life to a spiral staircase: "You keep coming back to the same points, but always from a different perspective."

Cleland had always looked back on his 25-year-old self and seen a conspirator in his own destruction. Now, he saw a bystander.

He says he's not curious about who the other soldier was, nor is he angry. Lloyd's story removed a huge weight. More than that, it altered his view of himself: Maybe he's as strong as he is because he blamed himself.

There was no room for self-pity. He had put himself in a hole, he believed, and only he could get himself out. He drew strength from his faith in God, and the uplifting words of others -- especially those who had seen hardship.

Along the way, that need to be inspired evolved into an ability to inspire. And now, the truth has made it easier to accept what happened on April 8, 1968 -- without guilt. It was a senseless accident of war, not a careless act of self-destruction.

On a rainy late-summer day, when the past comes calling, this new perspective lessens the brunt of a radio host's awkward question.

"Millions of Americans out there struggle with disability every day," he tells the DJ during their telephone interview in his Atlanta apartment. "They have a tough time getting up in the morning. If I can help by just shining a little light on my life ... then I'm proud."

Cleland hangs up the phone and wheels into the bedroom to shower and change. All around him, on tables and walls, are his touchstones. A bust of Robert F. Kennedy. Framed pictures -- Colin Powell, Churchill, the Lone Ranger. An open Bible on the coffee table. And a dozen plaques and posters with motivational sayings.

One contains the "Prayer of the Unknown Confederate Soldier." It is Cleland's favorite; he keeps copies in his briefcase. Part of it reads: "I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things." Beside his bed, a small plaque contains the final stanza: "I was given life that I might enjoy all things."

It is Aug. 24, and a full day of events looms ahead. Cleland will visit a housing project, eat lunch with Democratic leaders and mingle at a senior citizens center, where retirees and veterans will sing "Happy Birthday to You." It is Cleland's 57th.

Tonight, he'll drive himself out to the small town of his youth, to meet his parents for a quiet birthday dinner. They'll choose a restaurant not far from the intersection of Church and Max Cleland boulevards.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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