Max Cleland, former VA administrator and senator, dies at 79
Former U.S. Senator 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. Max was 79.
Max was beloved in Georgia. He had an extensive career in politics and was appointed to several key roles in different administrations.
Born in Atlanta on August 24, 1942, Max 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. While on duty during the Vietnam War, Max lost two legs and part of an arm after a grenade explosion on April 8, 1968. Cleland was a young Army captain in the 1st Air Cavalry Division. During the battle of Khe Sahn, as he exited a helicopter, he saw a live grenade that had been dropped on the ground. He bent to pick it up with his right hand, intending to toss it quickly away, and was shattered by its blast.
According to a post from the Department of Veteran Affairs, Max was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device, the Silver Star and the Soldier’s Medal.
Max had a long and distinguished career in public service at the state and national levels in both the executive and legislative branches of government.
A Democrat, Max started his political career in 1970. He was elected to the Georgia Senate and served two terms. Then-President Jimmy Carter appointed Max administrator of the Veterans Administration, now the Department of Veterans Affairs. He led the department from 1977 to 1981. In 1982, he was elected Georgia’s secretary of state and served in the office until 1996. Max successfully ran for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Sam Nunn in 1995. He served on four Senate Committees: Armed Services; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Governmental Affairs; and Small Business.
President Joe Biden, who served as a US senator alongside Cleland, issued a statement on behalf of himself and first lady Jill Biden, saying “We are deeply saddened” by his death, and are remembering him as an “American hero,” as well as a “colleague and a friend.”
Biden said in his statement, “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. 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.”
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. 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.
Max never married and did not have children, but he was loved and cherished by many.