Cleland was severely wounded by his own grenade in 1968 while fighting in the Vietnam War. He lost both arms and one leg in the accident, but he still entered politics. He served for several years in the Georgia state legislature, became an advocate for affairs relating to veterans and served a remarkable 14 years as secretary of state of Georgia from 1982 to 1996, working closely with his future senate coleague, Zell Miller. Cleland ran for and was elected to the United States Senate in 1996. The democratic nomination became available because of the retirement of Sam Nunn. He was defeated while running for a second term in 2002 by Saxby Chambliss. Voters were angry at his criticisms of the Republican administration's national security policies.
Though Cleland's disabilities have given him many hardships, he has managed to adapt and function with relative normality in life and politics. Many people have said that they have been inspired by his struggle.