Retired General H. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 9/11, shared his recollection of that day and his views of the war against terrorism with the Foothill College Celebrity Forum audience at Flint Center, Sept. 11 and 12.
His review of that historic event and his 38 years in the military kept the audience's rapt attention throughout. But it was his answer to a question from the audience at the end that shocked his listeners.
"What do you think of General Wesley Clark and would you support him as a presidential candidate," was the question put to him by moderator Dick Henning, assuming that all military men stood in support of each other. General Shelton took a drink of water and Henning said, "I noticed you took a drink on that one!"
"That question makes me wish it were vodka," said Shelton. "I've known Wes for a long time. I will tell you the reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues, things that are very near and dear to my heart. I'm not going to say whether I'm a Republican or a Democrat. I'll just say Wes won't get my vote."
Shelton was on a 757 en route to Budapest for a conference when he learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Knowing that New York had perfect weather and there were no computer problems, he determined that it was a terrorist attack and immediately turned the plane around.
Shelton's 38 years in the military included two years in Vietnam and service in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and Green Berets. In addition to having been an adviser to the president and a member of the National Security Council, he has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the Purple Heart and six Distinguished Service Medals. He has been decorated by 15 foreign governments and knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
His 6-foot-6-inch military bearing and commanding presence at the Celebrity Forum belied his recent personal battle. Only months after his retirement, following 400 parachute jumps from 30,000 feet, the former special ops soldier fell from a ladder outside his home, landed with his head caught in a chain-link fence and was partially paralyzed from the neck down.
The doctor told Shelton he would never walk or use his hands again. Shelton said he checked the doctor's name tag for "God"; he didn't see it. Eighty-four days later he walked out on his own, and he is now close to 100 percent recovered. The unfortunate experience taught him an invaluable lesson -- "the importance of faith, family and friends when the chips are down."
Three days after Shelton took office as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his commitment to the integrity of the military was tested. When U.S. planes in the Iraq no-fly zone were attacked, a member of Congress suggested that perhaps "we" could fly a U-2 spy plane so low over Iraq that it could easily get hit. Then we'd have a reason "to kick Saddam out of Iraq." After Shelton responded that he would order that "just as soon as you are qualified to fly (it)," he was not asked again to compromise his office.
"Sometimes people in a position of power lose perspective on right and wrong," Shelton said.
The events of 9/11 were not a surprise to Shelton. He had been concerned because the United States offers a vulnerable target-rich environment. Two areas continue to worry him. First, a cyber-attack on air control, water, 911, financial or other nationwide systems could "bring us to our knees." Second, the use of weapons of mass destruction, even small amounts of sarin gas, anthrax germs, bio-attacks, continues to be a dangerous threat. Their deployment had been planned for the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, but al-Qaeda ordered the attack before they were in place.
In order to deal with the ongoing danger, the United States must "continue to go after terrorists," he said. "Bush has maintained the pressure and earned kudos in spite of the criticism."