Retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey, who rose through the ranks in a 46-year military career to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President Ronald Reagan, has died. He was 94.

Vessey — who enlisted as a private in the Minnesota National Guard in 1939, fought in World War II and Vietnam, and was the nation’s top military officer when he retired to his home state of Minnesota in 1985 — died Thursday evening, his daughter, Sarah Vessey told The Associated Press. He was surrounded by family and died of natural causes, she said.

After being named chairman of the joint chiefs in 1982, Vessey helped oversee the military buildup that Reagan championed when he took office just over a year earlier.

“It was probably the greatest peacetime modernization of the American military establishment that ever took place,” Vessey recalled in a 2004 interview. “We improved every facet of the armed forces, from the recruiting and retention, the selection of individuals, to the way they lived, but most importantly to the way they fought.”

Vessey said the Soviet Union had been making a “big push” to solidify its position in Europe, deploying SS20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles and strengthening its ground forces in East Germany, “dabbling” in West European elections at a time when NATO was shaky, and stepping up its espionage.

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