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First foreign-born top U.S. military officer John Shalikashvili dies at 75

WASHINGTON — Retired army general John Shalikashvili, the first foreign-born chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, died early Saturday of complications from a stroke, a military hospital said. He was 75.

Shalikashvili — known simply as “Shali” — passed away at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, Joint Base Lewis-McChord said in a statement. He had previously suffered a severe stroke in 2004.

Shalikashvili is survived by his wife Joan and their son Brant.

A public memorial service is planned for August 6 in Tacoma, to be followed at an undetermined date by a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery just outside the US capital.

The Polish-born Shalikashvili became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993, serving under then-president Bill Clinton until he retired in 1997.

“As we mourn his passing, so, too, do we reflect on his contributions to our nation — the lives he changed, the careers he mentored, the impact he made simply by virtue of his character and commitment,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said.

“We are a stronger, more capable military today because of his efforts to make us so. He will be deeply missed.”

President Barack Obama hailed his “only in America” story, born on June 27, 1936 in Warsaw to Georgian refugee parents fleeing Russia’s Bolshevik uprising.

He was granted US citizenship in 1958, six years after immigrating to Illinois. It was his first citizenship ever as he had previously been considered “stateless.”

“With the passing of general John M. Shalikashvili, the United States has lost a genuine soldier-statesman whose extraordinary life represented the promise of America and the limitless possibilities that are open to those who choose to serve it,” Obama said in a statement.

“From his arrival in the United States as a 16-year old Polish immigrant after the Second World War, to a young man who learned English from John Wayne movies, to his rise to the highest ranks of our military, Shali’s life was an ‘only in America‘ story.”

NATO’s 10th supreme allied commander for Europe and commander-in-chief of United States European Command from 1992 to 1993, Shalikashvili was first drafted into the US Army in 1958, rising through the ranks of every level of unit command from battalion to division during four decades of service.

He served from 1968-69 in Vietnam and headed Operation Provide Comfort, a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission that defended Kurds in northern Iraq in the 1990s. It was the US military’s first major humanitarian mission.

He also led military operations in Bosnia, Haiti and elsewhere around the world.

“John was an extraordinary patriot who faithfully defended this country for four decades, rising to the very pinnacle of the military profession,” said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who worked closely with Shalikashvili in the Clinton administration when he was White House chief of staff and the general was Joints Chiefs chairman.

“I came to rely on his wise counsel, his wealth of military expertise, and his candor as we were challenged by foreign policy crises in Haiti, the Balkans, and elsewhere,” added Panetta, praising Shalikashvili as “one of this country’s finest.”

Shalikashvili had expressed support in his final years for a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the US military, saying there was no evidence that allowing gay soldiers to be open about their sexual orientation would undermine military readiness.

The ban is now set to be formally repealed on September 20.

Clinton awarded Shalikashvili the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the United States. An inscription on the medal thanked him for working “tirelessly to improve our nation’s security and promote world peace.”

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