Hugh Shelton: Installments

Part 1: Becoming a Soldier

The first episode of Biographical Conversations with General Hugh Shelton introduces the future military leader with a lively discussion that spans from his childhood to his early years as an Army officer. Young Henry Hugh Shelton’s father, Hugh Shelton, was a hardworking farmer in Edgecombe County; his mother, Patsy Speed Shelton, a teacher. The oldest of four children, Hugh worked long hours on the family farm with his siblings, raised Hereford steer, and, as a teenager, also drove a school bus and worked in a local store. “Hard work won’t kill you,” General Shelton recalls of his busy early years. It also didn’t keep young Hugh from courting Carolyn Johnson. The two began dating as student at North Edgecombe County High School, stayed together while Hugh made his way through NC State University as a textile technology major, and married in September 1963. By that time Hugh was a commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army, having thrived as an ROTC while still at NC State and completing Infantry Officer basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia. After the wedding it was back to Fort Benning, where the lieutenant successfully completed the grueling nine-week Ranger School program, and then served as a scout platoon leader of the 2nd infantry division of the 38th infantry regiment. After completing infantry training in June 1965, Lieutenant Shelton left the army for a position at the prestigious South Carolina textile company Riegel Industries, but the once and future soldier didn’t stay long. Serving as a platoon leader in the army reserves on weekends did little to quench Lieutenant Shelton’s thirst to serve, particularly at a time—1966—when the United States was escalating its military presence in Vietnam. The young husband and expectant father—Mrs. Shelton was expecting their first child—reenlisted in the army, and on December 30, 1966, flew to Vietnam for his first tour of duty.

Part 2 : Tours of Vietnam

Episode 2 of Biographical Conversations with Hugh Shelton explores his two perilous tours of Vietnam. Days after he arrives for the first time in Southeast Asia, Lieutenant Shelton is assigned to Project Delta, an outfit known for its highly dangerous missions. An executive officer asks Lt. Shelton and two other Project Delta soldiers to join him in a private meeting. “I might as well tell you right now,” the executive officer tells the three men, two out of the three of you won’t make it out of here alive.” “All of us looked at him in disbelief,” General Shelton recalls, “but I think all of us were thinking, ‘well, I feel really sorry for the other guys.’” All three men did survive their missions, but for Lt. Shelton, there were harrowing incidents; at one point one of the Vietnamese soldiers accompanying his unit, unwisely participating in the mission despite a persistent cough, continued to hack loudly into the night. “The North Vietnamese were searching for us, and they would hear it,” General Shelton remembers. “If you have a cold, you are obligated to tell other the other team members (before the mission begins). By the following morning, the Vietnamese soldier was dead. “I don’t know what happened, but I think that the lieutenant, the Vietnamese lieutenant that was with us, choked him in the middle of the night.” Promoted to Captain after completing the mission, Lt. Shelton spent the rest of his first tour as commander of Detachment A-104 in Ha Thanh, a region that sat astride major infiltration routes coming out of the north. Captain Shelton completed his tour in December 1966, and returned to North Carolina where his wife and one-year-old son, Jon, greeted him. But a year later, he was back in South Vietnam. In the midst of gunfire battle on this second tour Captain Shelton grabbed headphones to call for medical evacuation; one of his soldiers was seriously injured. Through the headphones came joyous news: Carolyn Shelton had just delivered a healthy baby boy; Jeffrey Michael Shelton was born on August 5, 1969, in Edgecombe County. “Get off the damn frequency!” Captain Shelton shouted “I need medical evaluation for my RTO, whose face has been blown off!” Fortunately for all concerned, the RTO recovered with his face intact, and Captain Shelton, several months later, left the Vietnamese battlefield for the last time, returning to his growing family on Christmas Day, 1969.

Part 3: General in Command

Episode 3 of Biographical Conversations with General Hugh Shelton discusses the military leader’s rise in the ranks. Beginning with a 1972 move to Alabama so the then-Major could attend the Air Command Staff College at Maxwell Air Force, the program highlights subsequent Shelton relocations to Hawaii; Washington, DC; Washington State; North Carolina; New York; Kentucky; and back once again to North Carolina, in 1991, to command the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. By this time, Mr. Shelton had not only obtained the rank of Two-Star General, but, as Assistant Commander of the 101st Airborne, he had prepared and led the “ground attack” that so soundly defeated Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army in Gulf War I. General Shelton began his preparations for the attack by flying to Saudi Arabia to evaluate conditions there for the troops. “That night, I called back to the 101st, and General (Binford) Peay said, “What can we do to get the troops ready to deploy?” General Shelton recalls. “And I said, ‘General, the best thing I can tell you to do is tell them to take their wife’s hairdryer, hold it in their face, and practice breathing with that blowing in their face, because that’s the way it’ll feel.’” In the wake of the US triumph in Iraq, General Shelton obtained what he regarded as his dream assignment, when he was tabbed for the command post at Fort Bragg. “It was probably one of the happiest days of my life…the opportunity to go back to North Carolina, to go to Fort Bragg, was a dream come true.” In 1993, General Shelton received his third star, and a year later, as Commander of Joint Task Force 180, led the peaceful a peaceful transformation of power in Haiti, as American troops escorted the de facto President, Emile Jonaissant, out of the country and reinstalled the legitimate leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Mission accomplished, General Shelton returned to the 101st. Soon, even bigger responsibilities would beckon.

Part 4: Chairman of the Chiefs

The fourth and final episode of Biographical Conversations with General Hugh Shelton focuses on his tenure as Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff—a term that spanned four years and two presidents. Nominated to the position by President Bill Clinton in 1997, General Shelton took the oath of office in October of that year. Within weeks he was advising the President and his cabinet on strategies to weaken the al-Qaeda network, led by Osama bid Laden. Although the initial attack on the terrorist group did not capture bin Laden, it significantly damaged the al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, and killed more than 40 terrorists. A year later General Shelton and the Joint Chiefs planned the highly successful Operation Desert Fox, in which precise air strikes destroyed a significant number of Saddam Hussein’s military and security targets. After President Clinton left office in January 2001, General Shelton’s allegiance immediately switched to the new commander in chief, President George W. Bush. Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, the general and his wife were aboard the official military airplane Speckled Trout, en route to Europe, when news came that an airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. “That’s strange,” General Shelton recalls thinking at the time, “Clear weather, that’s got to either be the most egregious pilot error in the history of aviation, or that’s a terrorist attack.” A few moments later news of the second tower attack confirmed his worst suspicions. The plane turned around and flew back to Washington. Hours later, General Shelton appeared on television to reassure the American people that the Pentagon remained intact, and that US troops were ready for whatever challenges awaited them. He then attended the first of what would be many national security meetings. General Shelton notes that while President Bush repeatedly urged his cabinet to remain focused on al-Qaeda, the culprits of the September 11th attacks, there was increasing pressure from several members to push for war on a second battlefield—Iraq. General Shelton and his colleague Colin Powell both urged the president to dismiss any ideas linking Saddam Hussein to the specific 9/11 attacks, but by the time Mr. Shelton left office at the end of his term in October 2011, he suspected that the United States would soon be engaged in a second Gulf War. Intending to enjoy a robust retirement after serving his country for 38 years, General Shelton instead faced perhaps his greatest personal challenge, when an accidental fall from a ladder injured his spine. After an initial CAT scan a doctor told General Shelton that he would never walk again. “Doc, your name’s not God, is it?” was the military leader’s response. Nine weeks later, General Shelton walked out of the hospital and back to his life.