Shali: A caring, humane leader
John Shalikashvili was an impressive man – a foreign-born draftee who rose to the highest rank in the military, an adviser to President Bill Clinton and a leader of humanitarian efforts overseas.
To our family, the general was impressive in other ways – as a man who put family first and cared deeply about his soldiers.
My husband, Mike, worked for Shali (that’s what everyone called him) in the late 1980s in the 9th Infantry Division headquarters at Fort Lewis. Shali, who died July 23, was legendary among Army wives as the commander who stopped everything when his wife, Joan, walked to the headquarters building for lunch. He was the boss who excused Mike from an important training exercise so he could be with me for the birth of our son. On his last day in command, Shali surprised his staff by going floor-to-floor to shake hands with each one of them.
A few years later, Mike was stationed at a training post in Hohenfels, Germany. Shali was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. I was a reporter for the weekly post newspaper, The Training Times.
Late in 1993, we learned that Shali – by then a 4-star general – was coming to watch a troop training exercise.
I requested an interview.
Days before the scheduled visit, President Clinton announced he was nominating Shali to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shali would leave for Washington within days.
That made the answer to my request easy. No way.
The rumor was that his staff didn’t want him to risk saying anything that could jeopardize his confirmation. Shali would come to Hohenfels, receive a briefing, tour the battlefield and return promptly to NATO headquarters.
I could not ask a question. I could not be near him. “If the general sneezes, you cannot bless him,” I was told by a staffer.
Our post commander granted my one remaining request – that I be present for the briefing and that I ride in a separate Humvee to document Shali’s visit from a distance.
On the morning of his visit, I arrived at the conference room early, wearing jeans and a camouflage raincoat borrowed from my husband. I stood in back, leaning against a window sill, as row after row of seats filled with senior military officers.
Soon, Shali’s entourage pulled up out front, and a soldier called the building to attention. The Supreme Allied Commander strode up the stairs, down the hall and into the conference room. The generals and others snapped to attention and saluted.
Shali – all 5 and a half feet of him – saluted back, walked briskly past the front row, turned sharply down the center aisle and walked straight back to me. He smiled, reached for my hands and asked, “How are you doing? How are Mike and the boys?”
I was stunned. So were the officers who turned around to see who he was talking to.
We chatted briefly, and then Shali took his seat for the briefing. Afterward, he climbed into a Humvee for his tour, frequently going off-script to talk to soldiers in the field.
Hours later, Shali thanked his hosts and turned to climb aboard the helicopter waiting to take him back. That’s when our post commander yelled out one more favor. Would the general have his picture taken with the reporter of the post newspaper? Of course he would. With the rotors whirring behind us, Shali stood smiling for the picture with me.
A man of Shali’s rank didn’t have to take the time with me that he did that day. Once again, he was pretty impressive.
CUSTOMER SERVICE CHANGES
Beginning Monday, we’re changing – and trying to improve – the customer service we provide readers who call the newsroom.
For years, we’ve excused one newsroom staff member each week to serve as reader representative. Lately, with fewer people, we haven’t been able to do that without significantly hindering our news product. Instead, we’ve stolen moments to return phone messages or emails, leaving fewer readers with access to a live person.
At the same time, many readers have found other ways to contact us. Some prefer to speak directly with reporters using the phone numbers and email addresses published at the end of their stories. Some readers who want to comment on stories prefer to post their comments online.
Also, a number of calls to the reader rep were misplaced and better handled by another department.
So here is our plan.
Beginning today, you’ll see a Reader Guide on the left-hand column of this page. First, you’ll see a direct number to call for delivery problems. Next is a number to the TNT front desk for general questions and concerns.
Next, we list a phone line and an email box where you can leave us news tips and another phone line and email address for corrections or concerns.
If you’d still like to talk to a staffer, you can call a reporter directly or call one of the section editors listed. Of course, you can always call me or managing editor Dale Phelps.
We hope this new arrangement provides you a convenient place to leave a story tip or concern, or a way to speak directly with a person who can help you. Your calls are important to us, and we’ll do our best to respond promptly.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434