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Former Georgia senator, VA chief, Vietnam vet Max Cleland dies at 79

"Max Cleland was a good man who loved God and country," President Joe Biden said Tuesday.

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Former Georgia senator, VA chief, Vietnam vet Max Cleland dies at 79
Former Sen. Max Cleland speaks at "Salute to Those Who Have Served and Sacrificed" rally at the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston on July 27, 2004. Cleland died on Tuesday at the age of 79. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Max Cleland, a one-term lawmaker who represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate years after he lost three limbs in an accident during the Vietnam War, died at his Atlanta home on Tuesday. He was 79.

His family said Cleland died of congestive heart failure.

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Cleland joined the U.S. Army in 1965 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. In Khe Sanh in 1968, Cleland and a group of soldiers had just gotten off a helicopter when Cleland bent down to pick up a hand grenade he thought he'd dropped. When he did, it exploded.

The explosion caused serious injuries and required doctors to amputate parts of both legs and one of his arms.

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Cleland got into politics as a Democrat on his return to the United States and eventually won a Senate race in Georgia in 1996. He lost his bid for re-election in 2002.

"What happened to him would have destroyed most men. But he persevered through it and prospered," former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cleland first joined politics immediately after his return home, in 1971, when he was elected to the Georgia state Senate. Through his career, he also served as Georgia secretary of state and was the 10th administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration between 1977 and 1981 under former President Jimmy Carter.

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"Max Cleland was an American hero whose fearless service to our nation, and to the people of his beloved home state of Georgia, never wavered," President Joe Biden said in a statement Tuesday. "Max turned his pain into purpose."

During his time as the head of the VA, Cleland, who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, made PTSD an official VA diagnosis as well as helped create the Vet Centers program.

As a senator, he continued his efforts to help veterans, and headed initiatives focused on issues such as healthcare, bioterrorism preparedness and homeland security.

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"Sen. Cleland like to quote [Ernest] Hemingway, who wrote, 'The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,'" Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. "He surly was. Max Cleland's civic-minded spirit, optimism and resilience will stand as an inspiration to every American."

Cleland also served on the 9/11 Commission and on the board of the Export-Import Bank. His final position in public service was leading the American Battlefield Monuments Commission.

"I had the distinct honor of knowing Max as both a colleague and a friend during our six years together in the United States Senate," Biden added. "He was a man of unflinching patriotism, boundless courage, and rare character.

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"Max Cleland was a good man who loved God and country."

Notable deaths of 2021

Lee Elder is introduced before the ceremonial tee shot to start the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on April 8, 2021. Elder, the first Black man to play in the Masters Tournament, died on November 29 at the age of 87. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

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