John Shalikashvili, former Joint Chiefs chairman, dies at 75

Posted July 24, 2011, at 8:39 p.m.

Retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, who became the first foreign-born chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and guided military and humanitarian efforts in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s, has died. He was 75.

Shalikashvili died Saturday morning at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state of complications from a stroke, the Army said in a statement.

A native of Poland, Shalikashvili rose to the top military post at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 1997. He succeeded Gen. Colin L. Powell as chairman.

“General Shali,” as President Bill Clinton often referred to him, counseled Clinton on the use of troops during conflicts in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda and other places of conflict. When he appointed Shalikashvili as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, Clinton lauded the general as “a soldier’s soldier, a proven warrior, a creative and flexible visionary.”

President Barack Obama said in a statement Saturday that the United States had lost “a genuine soldier-statesman.”

“He strengthened our alliances in Europe and in Asia, forged closer defense ties with Russia, and championed the Partnership for Peace with the former Soviet states. At the same time, he oversaw successful military operations in Bosnia and Haiti, and elsewhere,” the president said.

Shalikashvili served as chairman when the controversial “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military was instituted. At that time, he contended that having homosexuals serve in the military openly would detract from morale and disrupt cohesion between troops.

But in a January 2007 opinion piece in The New York Times, Shalikashvili wrote that his stance on the policy had changed after meeting with gay servicemen.

“These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,” he wrote.

Before being named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Shalikashvili served as NATO’s supreme allied commander under President George H.W. Bush and as commander in chief of U.S. armed forces in Europe.

At the conclusion of the first Gulf War, he headed the international relief efforts for the Kurds who were pushed into the inhospitable mountains along the Turkish border by Saddam Hussein’s forces. With Kurds dying at a rate of about 1,000 each day, he led 35,000 soldiers from 13 countries and other volunteers in relief efforts. Within 90 days, all Kurds were returned to safe havens in Iraq, the Army said.

John Malchase Shalikashvili was born in Poland on June 27, 1936. As a boy, he and his family fled Poland in a cattle car, escaping just as the Soviet Army advanced into the country at the end of World War II. They settled in Pappenheim, a village in Bavaria. The family then immigrated to the United States in 1952 and lived in Peoria, Ill.

“When you think that someone who didn’t come to this country until he was 16 could rise to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, this is unique in the world,” told The New York Times in 1995. “Despite all the bad things that we are fond of reciting about this country, it’s incredible that a kid can come here and do this.”

Shalikashvili, who was fluent in Polish, German and Russian, learned to speak English by watching American movies, his speech at one time peppered with John Wayne phrases delivered in a Polish accent.

He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Bradley University in Peoria in 1958. Also that year, he became a naturalized citizen and was drafted. He was decorated for combat as a U.S. military adviser to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He continued to rise through the ranks, becoming assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991 before becoming NATO’s supreme allied commander in 1992 He retired in 1997.

He earned a master’s degree in International Affairs from George Washington University in 1970 and was a graduate of the Artillery Officer Advanced Course, the Naval War College and the Army War College.

Shalikashvili’s survivors include his wife Joan, and son, Brant.

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