Gen. John Shalikashvili, 1936–2011

The first foreign-born head of the Pentagon

When Gen. John Shalikashvili was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, his new staff didn’t know how to pronounce his name until the general himself told them it was “sholly-kosh-VEE-lee.” President Clinton later coined the nickname by which the top soldier would become universally known: “General Shali.”

Shalikashvili’s ancestry was the “stuff of romance,” said John Barry in TheDailyBeast​.com. His mother was a German-Polish aristocrat born and raised in the court of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. She fled to Warsaw during the 1917 revolution, where she married a “dashing Georgian cavalry officer” named Prince Dmitry Shalikashvili.

The family survived the German occupation of Poland during WWII, said The New York Times, and in 1952 they settled in Peoria, Ill. As a teenager Shalikashvili taught himself English by watching John Wayne movies. Two months after he became a U.S. citizen, in 1958, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to train as an officer.

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Shalikashvili loved serving so much, he “decided to make a career of the military,” said the London Telegraph. He was stationed in Vietnam, Korea, and Germany, and rose through the ranks to become a general in the 1980s. By 1990, he was commanding NATO forces in Europe, and he led the Kurdish relief operation in Iraq the following year.

When he was appointed President Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Time, Shalikashvili was a “bridge between two worlds.” The president had avoided the draft and came to power just as Europe was forging a new identity, while Shalikashvili was a Vietnam veteran with firsthand knowledge of Cold War diplomacy. Although his four years in office were “fairly placid,” the general oversaw the deployment of troops to Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf.

Shalikashvili was both the first draftee and the first foreign-born soldier to rise to the Pentagon’s top job. His “extraordinary life represented the promise of America,” said President Obama, “and the limitless possibilities that are open to those who choose to serve it.”

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