Army Gen. Shelton Tops List For Chairman of Joint Chiefs
By Bradley Graham
Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton has emerged as Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's new top choice to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after an exhaustive search for a candidate not only capable of leading the U.S. military but free of any past sexual indiscretions, Pentagon sources said yesterday.
Cohen conferred with President Clinton last week about the choice and plans to make a formal recommendation this week, the sources said.
"My guess is, we won't have any problem with it," a White House official said yesterday.
Shelton, who goes by the nickname "Hugh," led U.S. troops into Haiti in 1994 and now heads the Special Operations Command, overseeing some of the military's most versatile forces in missions around the world. While shorter on Washington experience than others who were in the running for the top military post, the general has a reputation among fellow soldiers for being particularly steady under pressure and a quick study.
The hunt for a new chairman to replace Gen. John Shalikashvili, who retires in September, was thrown wide open last month after Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the current vice chairman, removed himself from consideration after acknowledging an adulterous affair that occurred in the mid-1980s. Ralston had seemed such an obvious choice for the top job that Cohen, who took charge of the Pentagon only six months ago, and his aides were left without a clear second pick.
They have spent the last few weeks looking closely at a number of candidates who had once seemed to be dark horses, including Shelton. For one reason or another, some of the more touted prospective four-star candidates also took themselves out of contention.
Shelton turns out to be Ralston's closest Army friend, a fact that reportedly played no particular part in his selection but that is expected to help eliminate any potential friction between the two top officers. It also raises the possibility that Ralston may remain for a second term as vice chairman after his first one expires in February, if the climate on Capitol Hill is sufficiently receptive by then to reconfirm the Air Force general.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the senior military adviser to the president and the secretary of defense, and the next one faces many daunting challenges, including overseeing U.S. military involvement in Bosnia and managing the post-Cold War transformation of America's armed forces into more agile, more economical fighting and peacekeeping units.
The job, created in 1949, had been widely expected months ago to go this time to anyone but another Army officer. While the Pentagon prefers to rotate the position among the four branches of the armed services, the last two chairmen -- and three of the past four -- have been Army generals.
Customarily, too, chairmen have been drawn from the military's major commands, and Shelton, as head of the relatively small, elite Special Operations Command, may be vulnerable to criticism as coming from too specialized a world.
But Cohen, who as a Republican senator from Maine was instrumental in establishing the command 10 years ago, could argue that the skills and methods of the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALS and other teams in Special Operations are increasingly relevant to the less conventional threats likely to confront U.S. troops in the future.
Moreover, in his current position, Shelton has supervised forces deployed in all major U.S. military theaters of operation and many minor ones. He also has been responsible for managing a budget that has separate standing in defense bills.
Cohen also can stress Shelton's record as a proven field commander, not only in Haiti but also during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and two combat tours in Vietnam.
Shelton, 55, has spent a good part of his Army career as a paratrooper, serving formerly as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. During the Persian Gulf War, he was assistant commander for operations of the 101st Airborne Division.
His Army experience, though, extends well beyond jumping out of airplanes. During the Vietnam War, he commanded a Special Forces detachment on his first tour and an infantry company on his second. He also has been chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and served with the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., and the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.
He rose to the top of the Army's most prominent corps, the XVIII Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which he commanded until taking charge of Special Operations last year.
Shelton's only previous stint on the Pentagon's Joint Staff was 1987 to 1989, when he served as a deputy operations director.
His first command of a joint military operation came during the Haiti intervention, when he coordinated land, sea and air forces that were poised to attack but ended up entering peaceably after Haiti's ruling military authorities ceded power without a fight. The job also subjected him for the first time to mobs of journalists and national media exposure.
Shelton, who stands 6 feet 5 inches, is described by those who know him as being of quiet demeanor and exceedingly courteous. A seasoned jogger, he also has a passion for Corvettes -- he has owned at least seven or eight of the automobiles -- as well as powerboats.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company