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Max Cleland, former VA administrator and senator, dies at 79

<i>Ed Reinke/AP</i><br/>Joseph
Ed Reinke/AP
Joseph "Max" Cleland

By Chandelis Duster, CNN

Joseph “Max” Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and former leader of the Veterans Administration whose political career spanned more than four decades, died Tuesday from congestive heart failure at his home in Atlanta, his personal assistant Linda Dean told CNN. He was 79.

Born on August 24, 1942 in Atlanta, Cleland had an extensive career in politics and was appointed to several key roles in different administrations.

He graduated from Stetson University with a bachelor’s degree in English and from Emory University with a master’s degree in American history. He joined the US Army in 1965 and while on duty during the Vietnam War, he lost two legs and part of an arm after a grenade exploded. He was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device, the Silver Star and the Soldier’s Medal, according to a post from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Cleland, a Democrat, started his political career in 1970 when he was elected to the Georgia Senate, where he served two terms. He was appointed administrator of the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs, under then-President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and led the department until 1981. In 1982, he was elected Georgia’s secretary of state and served in the office until 1996. He was elected to the US Senate in 1996 as a Georgia senator, where he served one term but lost his 2002 reelection bid.

President Joe Biden, who served as a US senator alongside Cleland, said he and first lady Jill Biden are “deeply saddened” by his death, remembering him an “American hero,” as well as a “colleague and a friend.”

“Max turned his pain into purpose. He continued his distinguished public service, becoming a lifelong champion of the dignity and rights of working people and America’s wounded veterans. His leadership was the essential driving force behind the creation of the modern VA health system, where so many of his fellow heroes have found lifesaving support and renewed purpose of their own thanks in no small part to Max’s lasting impact,” Biden said in a statement. “He was a man of unflinching patriotism, boundless courage, and rare character. I was proud to have Max by my side. He will be remembered as one of Georgia’s and America’s great leaders.”

Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, remembered Cleland as “a hero, a patriot, a public servant, and a friend” in a statement on Tuesday.

“His advice as I entered the Senate and in the early months of my tenure have been invaluable. Georgia and the nation will deeply miss him,” Ossoff wrote. “Alisha and I are keeping Senator Cleland’s family in our prayers.”

Dean, Cleland’s personal assistant, told CNN he was passionate about swimming despite being a triple amputee and that he swam 72 laps in a pool to celebrate his 70th birthday.

“‘That’s how we survive to the next day, is reaching for the stars,'” Dean recalled Cleland telling her that day after swimming.

In 2002, Cleland was appointed to the 9/11 Commission, created to provide a “complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” where he accused the Bush administration of not cooperating with the panel. He served on the independent commission before becoming a member of the board of directors for the Export-Import Bank of the United States in 2003. Former President Barack Obama nominated Cleland to be secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission in 2009.

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CNN’s Alex Rogers and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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