Leading from the front
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is surrounded by Soldiers operating on Sword Base, Mogadishu, Somalia, Dec. 19, 1993, during his tour of United Nations Operations in Somalia II operations

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., Aug. 9, 2011 -- After nearly four decades of service followed by years of continued support for the military, retired Gen. John Shalikashvili died July 23, from complications following a stroke at Madigan Healthcare System, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He was 75.

Having served three tours at Fort Lewis, including one as the 9th Infantry Division commander, Shalikashvili retired from the military as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1998 and moved to Steilacoom, Wash., with his wife, Joan, and son, Brant.

The son of two refugees, Shalikashvili was born in Poland on June 27, 1936, and immigrated to the United States when he was 16. About a month shy of his 22nd birthday, the once “stateless” Shalikashvili was granted U.S. citizenship and rose to become one of the nation’s top officers.

More than 600 people, including fellow servicemembers, family and friends, gathered during a memorial service Aug. 6, at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, where they paid respects to a man who dedicated his life to bettering others.

Throughout military his career, Shalikashvili held many key positions, including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997 under President William Clinton. In addition to the chairmanship, he served as supreme allied commander of Europe, assistant to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, deputy commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe as well as commanding general of 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis.

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, who served with Shalikashvili under the Clinton administration, attended the memorial and said he often sought and took Shalikashvili’s advice. The two worked closely together over the last 18 years during which time Perry got to know him as a superb military leader, diplomat and treasured friend.

Perry described a peace enforcement mission in Bosnia for which Shalikashvili was partly responsible for planning and organizing in October 1995. Shalikashvili had less than two months to train a U.S. division-size element and three brigades from other countries for the mission. Perry accompanied him to a facility in Germany where his troops were training for the mission.

Despite bitter cold wind during simulated scenarios, Perry was deeply impressed that Shalikashvili ignored personal comfort, touring the facility and speaking to the officer in charge about his own views of the training. The officer told an approving Shalikashvili that his only regret was that it wasn’t colder.

“We always teach them to make the scrimmage tougher than the game,” Perry recalled Shalikashvili saying. “(Shalikashvili) trained (his) troops to perfection, proving out Admiral Hyman Rickover’s famous axiom, ‘The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war.’”

When visiting military installations not in combat zones, Perry said their wives often accompanied them and showed strong interest in the well-being of military families. The Shalikashvilis cared deeply about the troops’ families and advocated for better programs and services.

“Through their efforts and caring, many of the hardships in military families living abroad were significantly eased,” Perry said.

He was also a diplomat. As supreme allied commander Europe, Shalikashvili had earned utmost respect from military leaders -- both foreign and domestic.

“They knew he always represented his own country very well, but they also knew that he cared deeply about other countries,” Perry said. “They also knew that he would always be totally honest with them.”

When Shalikashvili suffered his first stroke in August 2007, he lost the use of his left side, but worked intensely at physical therapy in hopes of regaining it, but to no avail.

‘Still, like the good Soldier he was, he never gave up,” Perry said.

The motivated general, though long since retired, continued studying and writing about military issues, even when it was painful. In 2006, President of the National Bureau of Asian Research Richard Ellings established the John M. Shalikashvili Chair in National Security Studies. The chair was announced at a meeting in Washington D.C., and he insisted on standing at the lectern to deliver the speech.

Perry compared his determination to that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose paralysis did not keep him from doing the same.

“As I listened that evening to Shali, with a large lump in my throat, I thought of FDR giving his acceptance speech,” Perry said. “Both Shali and FDR were diminished, but they were never defeated.”

Reverend Charles Wahlstrom, the pastor of Oberlin Congregational Church in Steilacoom where Shalikashvili faithfully attended service, painted a picture of a humble man who loved God.

“We all knew and had deep respect for all he had accomplished in his life, but to his church family and to God, he was simply John,” Wahlstrom said.

His son, Brant, 39, said the family was devastated upon learning of his father’s second stroke, but found relief in knowing he no longer has to fight for his life.

“He was the greatest man I have ever met,” Brant said. “Despite how senior he became in the military, despite how serious the subject matter that he had to deal with on a daily basis, I always knew that if I ever needed my father, I came first.”

Shalikashvili will be buried Oct. 7 with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Page last updated Tue August 9th, 2011 at 00:00