It is remarkable enough to have been the first foreign-born soldier to become a four-star General in the U.S. Army. But John Shalikashvili, the pride of Steilacoom, who died at age 75 last week following a stroke, was also the draftee who became the military's highest-ranking officer--head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Gen. Shali, as he liked to be called, was a descendant of the medieval Georgian noble house of Shalikashvili. He was born in Poland and learned his English partly from John Wayne movies. He, like Dwight Eisenhower, was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; but unlike most generals, he reversed himself and campaigned for an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the ban on gays serving openly in the military. "When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose," he said. On Friday, the day before Shali died at Madigan Army Medical Center, President Obama officially signed the repeal of that U.S. policy.
Gen. Shali's statesmanship was compelling enough that the Army press release on his death did not dwell on his battlefront exploits or his command of Fort Lewis' 9th Infantry, but cited Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S. military's first major humanitarian mission, as "perhaps his greatest achievement."
That came about at the end of the first Gulf War, the release notes, when Saddam Hussein's military chased over 500,000 Kurds into the inhospitable mountains along the Turkish border, where a thousand died each day. Shali led volunteers and 35,000 soldiers from 13 countries to provide support, returning the Kurds to a safe haven in Iraq within 90 days.
The general, whose father was a Nazi, also oversaw U.S. troops who maintained security and distributed food in famine-stricken Somalia in the early 1990s.
He lived with his wife in Steilacoom since retiring after 39 years in the service, and was semi-active in politics, supporting John Kerry's failed run for the White House. He was still battling the effects of an earlier stroke, in 2004, and stayed in touch with friends, regularly dropping in for a Saturday morning coffee klatsch with retired military officers at the DuPont Starbucks.
His fellow retirees plan to hold a moment of silence in the midst of one of their upcoming klatsches. There will be a public memorial in Tacoma August 6, as well. The draftee general will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.