A Survivor's Story

After the explosion that nearly killed him, Max Cleland used inspiring words to recover. But it took a stranger's startling message to ease his deepest wounds.

Cover Story

October 24, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,Sun Staff

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

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