General John Shalikashvili: First foreign-born soldier to rise to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

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Although "Shali", as he became known, had to put up with some embarrassment over his long name, he had a determination given to him by pride in his ancestry. His life was, as President Obama put it, an "only-in-America" story.

Born in Warsaw in 1936, John Shalikashvili was a scion of the Georgian noble house of Shalikashvili. His father, Prince Dimitri Shalikashvili, served in the army of Czarist Russia. In 1917, during the Russian Revolution, Dimitri became a lieutenant-colonel in the army of the ill-fated Democratic Republic of Georgia. After the Soviet occupation in 1921 he escaped to Poland, where he married Maria, the daughter of Count Rudiger Bielajew, a former Czarist officer of Polish and German ancestry. Briefly an officer in the Polish Army in 1939, Dimitri was recruited to serve in the Georgian Legion, a Waffen-SS unit, first against the Soviets and later against the British in Normandy. He was lucky not to be handed over to the Soviets but, with his family, lived in Pappenheim, a small town in Bavaria, then in the US Zone. In 1952, they were able to go to the US.

John was 16 when his family arrived in Peoria, Illinois, a town of about 110,000 known for its mainstream Midwestern culture. They were sponsored by Winifred Luthy, who had been married to Dimitri's cousin. She was the wife of a local banker, David Connor, and together with the Episcopal church helped the Shalikashvilis get settled in. Dimitri worked for an electricity supply company, and Maria was a bank clerk. Shalikashvili went to Peoria high school, where he was a long-distance runner. He recalled how he learned English watching John Wayne movies at the local cinema. He attended Bradley University, Peoria, a private institution, and graduated in mechanical engineering in 1958. He later earned a master's degree in International Affairs.

In May 1958 Shalikashvili became an American citizen. He had previously been classified "stateless" since he had been born to parents who had been refugees. In July that year he received his call-up papers. Joining the army as a private, he took to the military life and applied for officer training, being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1959. A variety of junior command appointments followed.

Shalikashvili was sent to Vietnam, where he served as a senior district adviser in Quang Tri Province from 1968-69. He then attended the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. After further appointments he attended, in 1977, the US Army War College and served as the Commander of Division Artillery for the 1st Armored Division in Germany. In 1987, Shalikashvili commanded the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Tacoma, Washington.

Shalikashvili achieved real distinction as the commander of the peacekeeping and humanitarian Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War. This mission involved intense and complex negotiations with the Turkish government and tough meetings with the Iraqi military. It can be strongly argued that some 700,000 Kurds owe a debt to Shalikashvili and the American military for saving their lives, resettling them in a secure zone in Iraq.

As the supreme allied commander in Europe, leading Nato from June 1992 to October 1993, he carried through the transition of the organisation from its previous Cold War focus on the Soviet Union to a far more flexible operation. He succeeded General Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, having served from 1991 as assistant. He remained in the post until 1997, advising President Clinton on crises in the Balkans, Haiti and other troubled places.

He had been strongly critical of Nato's delay in intervening in Bosnia, and recalling their work together, Clinton said: "He never minced words, he never postured or pulled punches." During this time he helped implement Clinton's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, towards gay and lesbian service members; he changed his mind a decade later, advocating that the matter be dropped altogether.

Shalikashvili remained active in retirement. He was a visiting professor at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and served as a director of a number of commercial companies. He was an adviser to John Kerry's unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign. He returned for high-school reunions and meetings of the Bradley board of trustees. Peoria was proud of him and its other four-star general, Wayne Downing, also a Vietnam veteran. As the local paper observed, "Precious few communities help launch a four-star general, and Peoria has had two."

John Malchase David Shalikashvili, US general: born Warsaw 27 June 1936; married (one son); died Washington DC 23 July 2011.