Shalikashvili, General John (1936-2011)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 8/08/2013
  • Essay 10431

John Shalikashvili was born in Poland and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1952. He became a United States citizen in 1958 and was drafted into the army in 1959. Finding the army to his liking, he attended Officer Candidate School and obtained a commission. He served in Vietnam and for three tours at Fort Lewis in Pierce County. In 1986 he reached the rank of major general and commanded the 9th Infantry Division, which developed the motorized division concept. Among his greatest accomplishments was his command of the relief mission in northern Iraq in 1991. Very quickly he devised strategies to save thousands of Kurds who had escaped the Iraqi army. President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) selected him as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993. In 1997 Shalikashvili retired to Steilacoom near Fort Lewis.

From Poland to the U.S. Army

John Shalikashvili was the first foreign-born soldier and first draftee to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was born in Poland after his father, Dmitri Shalikashvili (1896-1978), a Georgian lieutenant colonel, fled there following the Russian occupation of Georgia in 1921. In 1941, as an ardent Georgian nationalist, the elder Shalikashvili enlisted in the Georgian Legion, a unit of ethnic Georgians recruited by Nazi Germany. The Georgian Legion served in Normandy under German control. The family remained behind in Poland, fleeing to Germany at the end of World War II. In 1952 the family immigrated to Illinois, sponsored by a local family. John, who was 16, knew little English; he learned the language at school and through long hours watching movies at a local theater.

In 1958 Shalikashvili graduated from Bradley University in Peoria with a degree in mechanical engineering. Also that year he became an American citizen, and two months later he received his draft notice. He fell in love with the army and applied for Officer Candidate School. In 1959 he completed officer training and received a commission as a second lieutenant. He had duty in field artillery and air defense artillery. In the early 1960s during a tour in Germany, Captain Shalikashvili met his future wife Joan (b. 1939), an Oregon State University graduate with bachelor's and master's degrees in education who was visiting friends in Germany. They married in 1966.

In 1968 and 1969 Shalikashvili served in Vietnam as a senior district advisor in Quan Tri province. By then a major, he was responsible for advising South Vietnamese forces and integrating those forces into the overall combat plans. Quan Tri, a north central province, was located just south of the "demilitarized zone" that witnessed heavy fighting. In January 1969 Shalikashvili was awarded the Bronze Star with "V" for valor. Following Vietnam, Shalikashvili attended the Naval War College. In 1970 he earned a Master's of Arts in International Affairs from George Washington University.

Three Tours at Fort Lewis

In 1970 Shalikashvili was assigned to Fort Lewis, located south of Tacoma in Pierce County, as executive officer, 2nd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery. This was a very challenging time, with the army confronting internal protests, strikes, and discontent. Then-Major Shalikashvili is remembered by veterans as an officer who stayed optimistic and displayed fairness toward the soldiers under him. He was described as hard-working and dedicated.

A second Fort Lewis assignment in 1975 had Lieutenant Colonel Shalikashvili commanding the 1st Battalion, 84th Field Artillery, 9th Infantry Division. The 9th Infantry Division at this time was at the leading edge of reshaping the now-volunteer army. It was testing methods to improve quality of life and soldier satisfaction. Shalikashvili talked with his troops to evaluate the various experiments of the volunteer army. He left Fort Lewis in 1977 to attend the Army War College and then became 1st Armored Division Artillery Commander in Germany.

On June 10, 1987, Major General Shalikashvili came back to Fort Lewis to command the 9th Infantry Division. The division was undergoing development as a motorized light division. Its soldiers had tested beefed-up dune buggies and other fast attack vehicles for combat use. The tests detected flaws, so the division became the first to receive the new High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, called Humvees, in 1985. The 9th Infantry Division was then reclassified from a light division to a motorized division with some heavier weapons systems. Shalikashvili shaped the division for battle under this new concept with battle testing at the Yakima Firing Center. During the summer of 1988, in an army economy push, the division lost one brigade and Shalikashvili had to again reorganize its battle strategies. In 1989 he received a third star, rising to lieutenant general, and was reassigned.

Kurdish Relief and NATO Commander

In April 1991 Lieutenant General Shalikashvili went to northern Iraq to direct the relief program Operation Provide Comfort. Iraqi army forces had conducted attacks on northern villages, driving out the Kurdish residents. They were pushed into the mountains on the border with Turkey and most were living in the open. About 1,000 Kurds were dying every day.

Shalikashvili immediately mounted massive relief missions. Once these missions had delivered life-saving supplies, Shalikashvili turned the effort to establishing safe refugee camps and quickly returning refugees to their homes. His troops worked with relief agencies to build the camps. They did this while also confronting threats from hostile Iraqi army forces. Shalikashvili instructed his coalition forces to maintain restraint when fired upon and not to initiate battles. Shalikashvili met with the Iraqi forces, warning them of the risks of attacking the relief effort. Hostilities were avoided, leaving the coalition troops to focus on assisting the refugees. Providing food and medical attention dramatically reduced the death rate. At the same time, his forces opened the northern Iraqi towns so the refugees could return home. Shalikashvili's command was exceptional, saving lives, bringing order, and allowing 500,000 refugees to return to their homes in several months. It has been described as one of the most successful modern refugee efforts.

In August 1991 General Colin Powell (b. 1937), then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recognizing Shalikashvili's leadership skills and organizational ability, called him back to Washington, D.C., as his assistant. Shalikashvili had demonstrated great diplomacy and logistics skills and Powell noted that he was able to operate in new conceptual territory with ease. In 1992 Shalikashvili was named Supreme Allied Commander Europe, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). His knowledge of Europe and ability to speak Polish, Russian, and German played a role in this assignment.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

On October 12, 1993, President Bill Clinton announced the improbable selection of General Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The chairman serves as the principal military advisor to the president. President Clinton referred to him as "General Shali," a soldier's soldier. The president, in calling him General Shali, followed the affectionate name the general's staff used. General Shali was not a traditional choice. He was foreign-born, a draftee, and not a West Point graduate, having earned his commission through Officer Candidate School. His achievements in northern Iraq made him a good choice for a modern military that would carry out humanitarian as well as combat roles.

As chairman, Shalikashvili advised President Clinton on military and humanitarian missions to Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf. He oversaw more than 40 operations and sought a greater integration of the military and civilian agencies in these often-humanitarian missions. He also continued the efforts of his predecessor Colin Powell at improving joint operations with the various military branches working together. Shalikashvili had the difficult task of reducing the military budget to realize a "peace dividend." This included cutting unneeded weapons systems and the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Act. He completed his chairman's tour in 1997 and retired. Upon his retirement President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award. He was among the few from the military to receive this honor.

Retirement to Steilacoom

In 1998 General Shalikashvili moved to Steilacoom in Pierce County, not far from Fort Lewis. John and Joan Shalikashvili were both very active in local and national affairs. He was a visiting professor at Stanford University and an advisor to the Stanford-Harvard Preventive Defense Project. Joan Shalikashvili was active in community and support groups including the United Service Organizations (USO) and others. In 2004 the retired general served on the presidential campaign of John Kerry (b. 1943). During the campaign, on August 7, 2004, Shalikashvili had a major stroke that caused paralysis of his left side. His condition did not halt his commitments -- he continued to travel and speak on military issues.

During his tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Shalikashvili had opposed openly allowing gays in the military, but in later years, having met with gay service members, he changed his position concerning the so-called "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. He wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times in January 2007, arguing that "Don't ask, don't tell" had been a speed bump to allow cooling off while the military evolved. Shalikashvili had learned from his conversations with gay service members that the policy was a drain on talent, with many good military people removed from the service. He called for an end to the policy, which was finally rescinded in September 2011.

In June 2009 Shalikashvili became co-chairman of the Friends of American Lake Foundation along with golf great Jack Nicklaus (b. 1940). The group sought to raise money to upgrade the golf course at the American Lake Veterans Hospital. During a fundraising event at the course Shalikashvili, who had never golfed, saying it took too long, was helped into a single-seat golf cart for the mobility-impaired and taught how to swing a club. With contributions, such golf carts were purchased. They had an elevating seat that brought the golfer into position to swing a club. The tee boxes and bunkers were then made accessible for these golf carts. Additional changes made the course manageable for disabled golfers. Jack Nicklaus donated his design services for the course revisions. (By 2013 the organization was continuing an effort to construct a second nine holes, employing a design that Nicklaus contributed.)

General John Shalikashvili had a second stroke and died at the Madigan Army Medical Center on July 23, 2011. A memorial service at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center drew a large audience. A funeral and burial at Arlington National Cemetery followed. President Barack Obama (b. 1961) called him an only-in-America story: an immigrant who excelled and contributed so much to his adopted country. As an immigrant he had a special appreciation for America.

Sources: David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace (New York: Scribner, 2001); Robert H. Scales Jr., Certain Victory: United States Army in the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Staff, United States Army, 1993); Quil Lawrence, Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East (New York: Walker and Company, 2008); Roger R. Trask and Alfred Goldberg, The Department of Defense, 1947-1997: Organization and Leaders (Washington, D.C.: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1997); "John Shalikashvili -- A Farewell to Shali Memorial: Hundreds Pay Their Respects to a Man Who Rose from Stateless Immigrant to Top Military Leader," The Olympian, August 7, 2011, p. 3-A.

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