Nobody wanted Lt. Max Cleland to go to Vietnam in 1967—not his parents, not his friends, not the general he served as aide-de-camp at Fort Monmouth, N.J. “But it got to me,” he says, “sitting behind my walnut desk and walking on two-inch carpets knowing less-trained guys were being drafted to fight in my place.” So Cleland volunteered for combat, made captain and, four weeks before he was due to return to the U.S., he bent down to pick up a grenade that turned out to be live. It blew away his legs and his right forearm. Though he had won the Bronze and Silver Stars, Cleland did not find a hero’s welcome back home. “In the veterans’ hospital,” he recalls, “I hit rock bottom. They treated me like I was just a claim number.”
No appointment of Jimmy Carter’s young Presidency seems as poignant—or as pointed—as that of Max Cleland to head the Veterans Administration. When protests from Vietnam veterans plagued the agency in the Nixon years, Cleland was among the severest critics of its hospital care. Now he is committed to making the huge bureaucracy more “compassionate” and “sensitive” for 30 million veterans and their next-of-kin. Cleland is the first Vietnam alumnus to hold the $57,500-a-year job—and, at 34, the youngest ever.
Like his White House sponsor, Cleland is a small-town Georgian, the son of an automotive supply salesman in Lithonia (pop. “2,400 happy people and two grouches”). A strapping 6’3″ high school athlete and “outstanding senior,” he went on to Florida’s Stetson University. There, he admits, he “did not exactly take the world by storm.” But a junior semester studying government in Washington and a subsequent congressional internship did ignite a spark. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I began to slowly perceive that little ole Max Cleland might have a role in this big thing called American government and politics.”
The Army—and 18 months recovery from his wounds—intervened. In 1969 he was fitted for artificial limbs and released from a New York VA hospital. Five months later he announced for the Georgia senate—and won. (Jimmy Carter was elected governor the same year.) In Cleland’s reelection campaign two years later the strain of wearing the limbs was beginning to show. “I was mentally worn down, and my body was raw,” he recalls. “But I wanted to put my best foot forward, even though it was plastic.” He gave up his artificial legs for a wheelchair in 1973 (“I crossed that psychological barrier”), and he uses a hook only when he drives.
Cleland’s devotion to veterans’ affairs springs mainly from his own ordeal of “impersonal, inadequate” treatment. “They taught me to use stubbies [inflexible wooden legs] at Walter Reed Army hospital,” he says. “But then they retired me.” The VA did not encourage him to use artificial limbs, nor did it teach him to drive a car. He learned that from another triple amputee. The $1,600 the VA gave him to equip a car for his special needs (a hand-operated accelerator and brake, for example) is “the same amount they were giving in 1946,” he complains. (He now drives a battered 1970 Olds-mobile.) After Cleland had testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating VA rehabilitation, Carter appointed him to head a commission on Georgia’s veterans’ problems in 1972. Two years later Cleland’s political career jolted to a stop when he lost a Democratic primary election to become Georgia’s lieutenant governor. “Suddenly I was out of business and unemployed,” he recalls. “I realized then that I had come to an end to what I could do under my own power. That’s a hard place to be, but once you admit the fact and reach out into the darkness for help, you find it.”
Shortly after that he was hired by the Senate Veterans Committee staff and set up housekeeping for himself in a one-bedroom Washington apartment. Cleland dates occasionally, and likes to travel and listen to soft rock. He cooks breakfast and does some house-cleaning himself.
In his new role, jobs for veterans will be a high priority, and he also intends to change the face of VA headquarters—literally. “You wouldn’t believe the architectural barriers to the handicapped,” he says. “Inaccessibility to Johns, inaccessibility to water fountains, even to the front door.”
He supports Carter’s pardon of draft-evaders. “I had enough trouble making my own decision about Vietnam,” he says. “I don’t condemn other people because they took a different attitude. I have no leftover wisdom. The people I have a feeling for are those who served. That’s the group whose mistreatment embitters me.” He thinks back to his days as a college student in Washington. “Once having known that the system can work for you, you never quite lose your belief. At least I never did.”