Sen. Max Cleland’s life celebrated in renaming of Atlanta VA hospital

Ossoff and Warnock promoted bipartisan legislation in 2022 to rename the medical center for Cleland.
Senator Max Cleland in 2002. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Senator Max Cleland in 2002. (JEAN SHIFRIN/staff)

Selfless. Generous. A man who believed the best in human nature.

Those were just some of the descriptors attributed to Max Cleland, the late U.S. senator, Veterans Administration leader and Vietnam War veteran Friday to celebrate Cleland and the renaming of the Atlanta VA hospital in Decatur after him.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough joined Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock with Cleland’s loved ones to honor his legacy. Ossoff and Warnock had promoted bipartisan legislation in 2022 to rename the medical center for Cleland. Now, as veterans enter the hospital, they will see the words “Joseph Maxwell Cleland Atlanta VA Medical Center” atop the digital banner.

“This decision carries a profound significance for Senator Cleland’s legacy, which embodies the essence of selfless service, resilience and unwavering commitment to our veterans and their well-being,” said Ann Brown, director of the Atlanta VA Health Care System.

Cleland had a storied career in public service: he was a U.S. Army captain serving in Vietnam when he was injured by a grenade explosion that cost him both legs and his right arms — leaving him dependent on a wheelchair for mobility. He later won a seat in the Georgia Senate, and was later appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter to be administrator of the Veterans Administration.

Cleland worked to create a mental health support structure for returning vets that exists today as the Vets Center program. As a U.S. senator from 1997 to 2003, Cleland championed legislation to create the National Cemetery in Canton.

“Let’s be clear, the renaming of the Atlanta VA Medical Center is not just about a name. It’s about preserving the memory of a man who believed in the best in human nature,” Warnock told the crowd.

Ossoff remembered the late senator as someone who “truly embodied service to the United States.”

“In a literal sense, this man, who left parts of his body on the battlefield, whose service to the country spanned from the battlefields of Vietnam, to the veterans administration under President Carter, to .. his service in the United States senate,” Ossoff said. “He was truly committed to this nation, committed to his fellow Americans, and committed to the state of Georgia.”

Both Senators and VA officials said that Cleland’s legacy will further fuel their commitment to improving services for veterans in the Atlanta-area. In July, the Atlanta VA Medical Center received low marks from the federal government for its performance. Two-thirds of VA hospitals included in a survey of hospital quality ratings received four or five stars out of five. The Atlanta VA Medical Center, by comparison, received just two stars.

Ossoff and Warnock said they wouldn’t stop pressing the VA to improve wait times for appointments, provide more housing for veterans, and answer calls into its phone system.

Earlier this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found evidence that veterans in crisis were struggling to reach the healthcare system. Then in August, the AJC reported that the Atlanta VA intends to hire more employees to answer its phones and has reduced the number of mental health calls that are going unanswered.

“Let us remember Senator Cleland as a war hero and a tireless champion for our veterans and their families,” said Brown, the director of the Atlanta VA Health Care System. “Let’s honor his legacy by redoubling our efforts to provide the highest quality healthcare and support to those who have borne the burdens of defending our nation.”