Born without a country, retired Gen. John Shalikashvili immigrated to the United States and rose to become the nation’s top military officer during a career that spanned nearly four decades.
About 600 people honored his life and contributions to his adopted country during a memorial service Saturday at the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center.
Shalikashvili, who lived for more than a decade in Steilacoom with his wife, Joan, died July 23 due to complications from a recent stroke. He was 75.
He holds the distinction of being the first naturalized American and first draftee to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s principal military adviser. He held that post from 1993 to 1997.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry, who served with Shalikashvili, described him as a superb military leader, a soldier’s soldier, a diplomat and a close friend. Shalikashvili helped foster a closer relationship between civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon and was respected and liked by service members around the globe. Crossing into Bosnia on a bitter-cold day in 1996, Perry recalled a combat engineer who told Shalikashvili he wanted to re-enlist. The general swore him in on the spot.
“His family will miss him more than they can say. His friends will miss him more than we can say,” Perry said. “Our nation will miss him more than now understood by the national security establishment. He was a man and, taken all and all, we should never see his like again.”
Shalikashvili’s recommendations sent U.S. troops into harm’s way in Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, and he led the humanitarian mission after the Gulf War ended in 1991. President Clinton presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, upon his retirement in 1997.
Shalikashvili always made time for his family despite his heavy responsibilities, said Brant, his 39-year-old son.
“Despite how senior he became in the military, despite the subject matter he had to deal with on a daily basis, I always knew that if I ever needed my father, I came first,” he said after the service.
Notable people in attendance included retired Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO military commander, and Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s No. 2 officer. Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who lives in Steilacoom, was one of two Medal of Honor recipients in the audience.
“He demonstrated a common touch, sensitivity and was the brightest guy I’ve ever known,” said retired Col. Beau Bergeron of Steilacoom, who served with Shalikashvili when he commanded the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis in the late 1980s. “He had that gift and feel at the geopolitical and international level.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Howie Stone of DuPont remembered the general when Shalikashvili was stationed during the 1970s at Fort Lewis, where he served as an executive officer and later a battalion commander.
“He was clearly a marked man that was going to go places,” Stone said. “He was a great guy, a great soldier and a fine American.”
The service also drew members of his church, town residents and those without a military background who wanted to pay their respects.
Jean Wilson, 92, of University Place, attended Oberlin Congregational Church in Steilacoom with the general and described him as a wonderful man who everyone liked. The first time she met him, the general took her hand and kissed it, Wilson said.
“It was such a gentlemanly thing to do. I was impressed with that man,” she said.
Tacoma resident Philip Cowan praised the general because he stood up vocally for gays in the military. Shalikashvili initially supported the now-rescinded policy that banned homosexuals from serving openly in the military, he but later changed his mind and made his view public.
“It took a lot of courage on his part that others in the military weren’t taking,” Cowan said.
Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that supports the families of fallen service members, held flags as a show of honor and respect at the request of the two-star general serving as the family’s casualty-assistance officer. District captain Kris Langley said that whether it’s for a private or four-star general, her group’s job remains the same, although she acknowledged it’s “very special” to support a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
Despite a major stroke in 2004 that left him paralyzed on his left side, Shalikashvili continued to travel and speak to improve U.S. ties with the rest of the world.
“He spent an entire career giving 110 percent and then when he finished that career, he continued to give 110 percent,” Brant Shalikashvili said.
His work ethic and service to country stemmed from his upbringing, his son said. Shalikashvili was born “stateless,” or without citizenship, to Georgian refugees who escaped to Poland following Russia’s Bolshevik uprising in 1917. Shalikashvili was granted U.S. citizenship at age 21 after distant relatives helped his family immigrate to the United States.
It was a “tremendously difficult journey” for his father to recover from his earlier stroke, and he made amazing strides, Brant said. Shalikashvili was at peace when it became clear he wouldn’t survive the most recent one, and his remaining time provided closure for the family.
Shalikashvili will be buried Oct. 7 at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
“At this point, I’m glad he doesn’t have to keep fighting,” his son said.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military