OPINION: To Max Cleland, with thanks

You’d never met a person happier to be alive than Max Cleland. Even missing both legs and his right arm, he smiled easily, laughed loudly, and quickly brought people into his world with a “Hey Brother!” or “Yes, ma’am!”

He loved fishing, flying, traveling and food — the more of it all the better. Most especially, he loved being around people, from the servers at Piccadilly Cafeteria to the president of the United States. He was an extrovert’s extrovert.

I first met Max Cleland when I interviewed for a job in his Senate office in late 1996. After working for him in Atlanta, I moved to Washington and worked as his communications director on Capitol Hill.

He had become an instant celebrity when he arrived in Washington, a recognizable figure from any place in the Capitol. He greeted Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy with a familiar “Hey Brother!” but also stopped, multiple times a day, to lend an ear or pray with strangers who approached him with the struggles they were going through.

They came to him because they knew that he had been through worse.

He grew up a much-loved only child, the adventurous Lone Ranger of Hugh and Juanita Cleland in Lithonia, Ga. His dad was a salesman and his mom stayed home to be with her son. They were Methodists and patriots and adored FDR, who had shown the world the profound good the American government could do in people’s lives when deployed by a person with good character.

After college, Max volunteered for military duty at the height of the Vietnam War, and then signed up not just for the Army, but for the infantry, knowing he would see battle. He sought out the action and found it, in ways he could never have imagined.

He was 6′2 tall and 25-years-old when a grenade blast in Khe Sanh ripped his body apart, literally limb from limb. He woke up from surgery to find only his left arm remained. He later learned the grenade had fallen from the jacket of an American soldier behind him.

Like many veterans with grievous injuries, he eventually celebrated the day of the explosion and called it “Alive Day,” to mark the anniversary of the day that he’d survived: April 8, 1968.

But the miracle of living through the blast was the easy part. Living with his injuries, both visible and invisible, was a struggle every day after that.

The little things you and I never think about, like buttons and ketchup packets, were daily frustrations. The big things, however, were where he truly shined, including running for office and winning.

He served in the Georgia state Senate, as Veterans Secretary under President Jimmy Carter, and as Georgia Secretary of State. But it was his election to the United States Senate to succeed Sam Nunn that realized the dreams he’d had as a young man in Lithonia.

He was unspeakably proud to be a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and worked on behalf of active duty service members and their families in any way possible, just as Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Russell had done before him.

He passed legislation to make the G.I. Bill available to spouses of military members. He got money to upgrade living quarters on bases. He toured installations around the world and worked to open a new veterans cemetery in Cherokee County, Ga.

He also took time to check in on the people around him, including me.

One day, as we returned to the Dirksen Building from voting at the Capitol, he asked, “Are you happy?”

“Of course,” I said. “I love my job.”

“Good, good. I want to make sure you’re really happy,” he said, adding, “Do you want to have a family someday? Be sure to have a family someday if that’s something that would make you happy.”

He told me many times that Richard Russell had never had a family and that it was his greatest regret in life.

In 2002, Max lost his re-election when Georgia Democrats up and down the ticket lost their races, too, and after the Congress, with his vote, sent U.S. forces into Iraq.

The election and the vote for war were horrifically ugly and left scars on him that never truly healed. But as he had throughout his life, Max Cleland survived.

After two more roles in Washington, including serving on the commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks that preceded the Iraq War, he moved home to Atlanta to retire.

He never married or had children of his own, in part, I think, because he struggled with the guilt of feeling like a burden to people closest to him — which he never was.

But he was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many people, including me, until the very end of his life.

When my children were in pre-school and I was working part-time in Atlanta, I told him once I worried my best work might be behind me.

“But I’m so proud of you,” he said. “You’re doing the hardest, most important job there is.”

He also encouraged me to take my current job working for the Atlanta paper, even if the hours would be long.

“It won’t prevent you from doing what you want for your family, it will make all of those things possible,” he said.

He loved collecting inspirational quotes and Bible verses and, in the last years of his life, I would visit him at his apartment on Peachtree Road and go through the ones he wanted to write down and compile for a book someday.

He asked every time about my children, and one day, sent his prized Lone Ranger cookie jar home for them to have as their own.

One December, he asked if he could read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to them and it became our Christmas tradition. Last Christmas, as his health began to fail, my daughter read it to him instead.

Max Cleland, always a soldier, leaves behind him an army of his own — friends, family, former staff members, and even strangers who met him once in passing, all changed for the better having known him.

We were inspired by his strength and mesmerized by his example. We’re still laughing at his occasionally bawdy jokes and will be grateful, always, for the chance to go along for the dazzling ride that he made out of this difficult, wonderful life.

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