By Denis Ventriglia. Photography by Brownie Harris.
On November 17, 2001, Capturing The Spirit Of The Carolinas co-publisher and photographer Brownie Harris and editor-at-large Denis Ventriglia met with General Hugh Shelton for a photography session and an interview. The following conversation between General Shelton and Denis Ventriglia took place in the Alumni Memorial Building at General Shelton’s alma mater, North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
GENERAL HENRY HUGH SHELTON
Henry Hugh Shelton was born on January 2, 1942, in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina. In 1963, he received a Bachelors Degree in Textiles from North Carolina State University, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Infantry through the Reserve Officer Training Corps on September 19, 1964. For the next thirty-seven years, Hugh Shelton served in a variety of command and staff positions in the United States and Vietnam. In Vietnam, he served two combat tours – the first with the 5th Special Forces Group in 1966 and 1967 (platoon leader), the second with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1969 and 1970 (intelligence and operations). He was promoted to Captain on March 19, 1967.
In 1968, he was an executive officer and then S-4 (logistics) with the 11th Battalion, 3rd Training Brigade, U.S. Army Training Center, Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
He served as brigade adjutant and operations officer, deputy division adjutant and infantry battalion executive officer while assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, Fort Shafter, Hawaii, from 1973 through 1977. Shelton became a Major on February 7, 1974.
From 1979 through 1982, Shelton commanded the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry in the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, and served as the 9th Infantry Division’s chief of staff for operations. He became a Colonel on October 1, 1983.
From 1983 through 1985, then Colonel Shelton commanded the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was the chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Fort Drum, New York from 1985 through 1987. He was selected for promotion to Brigadier General on August 1, 1988.
In 1987, General Shelton began two years as the deputy director for operations in the Operations Directorate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. In 1989, he began a two-year assignment as the assistant division commander for operations of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell Kentucky, during which he participated in the liberation of Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield/Storm while deployed in Saudi Arabia.
In May 1991, he was the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On October 1, 1991, General Shelton was promoted to Major General. In June 1993, Shelton was promoted to Lieutenant General and assumed command of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. In 1994, during his tenure as Corps commander, General Shelton led the United States Joint Task Force that restored democracy in Haiti. On March 1, 1996, he was promoted to General, and became the commander in chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where he was responsible for the readiness of all active duty and reserve component special operations forces of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
General Henry Hugh Shelton became the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on October 1, 1997, and served two two-year terms. His term ended on September 30, 2001, and he remained on active duty through November 1. Since General Shelton’s appointment by President Bill Clinton, U.S. forces have been in heavy demand and have participated in numerous joint operations around the globe. His last task was assisting Commander in Chief George W. Bush in the War on Terrorism during Operation Enduring Freedom.
While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shelton worked on behalf of service members, their families and military retirees by championing a number of quality of life initiatives, including: the largest pay raise in eighteen years, pay table and bonus reform, and critical improvements in both retirement and healthcare programs. He improved the readiness and retention of the current force and crafted Joint Vision 2020 – the road map for the Future Joint Force. General Shelton also established Joint Forces Command to consolidate joint experimentation efforts and guide the transformation of the U.S. armed forces for the 21st Century.
In addition to his N.C. State degree, the general holds a master’s degree in political science from Auburn University, completed Harvard University’s National and International Security Program, and attended the Air Command and Staff College, and the National War College.
General Shelton has received numerous military awards and decorations including four Defense Distinguished Service Medals, two Army Distinguished Service Medals, the two Legion of Merits, the four Bronze Star Medals, one for Valor, and the Purple Heart. He has also been awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, Joint Chiefs of Staff Identification Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, Military Freefall Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Air Assault Badge, Special Forces Tab, and Ranger Tab. General Shelton has been decorated by sixteen foreign governments including recently being awarded England’s Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His growing list of civilian awards include North Carolina’s highest Award for Public Service, the Eisenhower Award from the Business Executives for National Security, and recognition as National Father of the Year. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in December 2001, passed by the House on December 19 and by the Senate on December 20, 2001.
DENIS VENTRIGLIA: It is Saturday, November 17th, 2001, at 8:55 a.m. We are on the campus of North Carolina State University with General Henry Hugh Shelton. Good morning, General.
GENERAL SHELTON: Good morning, Denis, glad to be here.
Q – I am going to ask you questions about you, your family and career. Let’s begin with your childhood and schools. You were born in Tarboro, North Carolina, in January of 1942. Can you please tell us about your family while growing up, your parents, siblings and what it was like to grow up on the farm.
A – Well, Denis, I was born, as you said, out in Tarboro, North Carolina. I grew up out on a farm owned by my uncle, Henry Gray Shelton, who was a great North Carolinian who served in the North Carolina Senate and ran this large thousand-plus acre farm. I grew up there. My father was a farmer and during my early years he also ran an implement company. He was a Case tractor and implement dealer in addition to farming. Later he got out of the business and farmed full time for the rest of his life. My mother was a school teacher who taught in the Speed Elementary School which I attended for my first eight years. She subsequently retired.
I have two brothers, David and Ben. David is the second oldest son, and Ben is my younger brother. I have a sister named Sarah.
I grew up in this small community, attended Speed Baptist Church, was surrounded by who I think were good, great Americans during that period who were very much a part of what Tom Brokaw has referred to as the greatest generation – very high values, people of great character and integrity. It was a community in which a man’s word was his bond. It was a very safe community. I think for the first 18 years of my life we never even locked the door at night. So it was just a wonderful area to grow up in. It was hard work. I worked on the farm during the summers and did that until I attended North Carolina State. After my eight years at Speed Elementary School, I attended North Edgecombe High School for four years where I played basketball. We did not have a football team. I also played baseball and basically continued to receive the same type of mentoring and teaching and coaching, if you will, from individuals that again, I think, played a very important role in my life because they were focused on character and integrity and good citizenship in addition to academics. In 1959, I enrolled at North Carolina State University, originally majoring in engineering, and then developing a keen interest in textiles. I graduated with a degree in Textile Technology from N.C. State in 1963.
Q – Do you still have family in North Carolina?
A – Today, my mother, Sarah Shelton, still lives in Speed, North Carolina. She still plays organ in the Speed Baptist Church at the age of 84. My brother David is teaching in North Carolina along with his wife, Claudette, who also teaches. My younger brother, Ben, is a veterinarian in North Carolina, and my sister, Sarah, teaches school in North Carolina.
Q – You received a Bachelor’s Degree in Textiles from N.C. State. Did you have plans to go into the textile industry as a profession?
A – When I graduated from N. C. State in 1963, I firmly intended to go into the textile industry. I interviewed several companies and finally decided that I would accept a job with Riegel Textile Corporation in Ware Shoals, South Carolina. That is the largest plant, I am told, anywhere in the United States that took cotton in one end and turned out finished material on the other end.
However, I had enrolled in the ROTC program at N.C. State. It was mandatory for the first two years in those days, but after two years, I decided that I would pursue the next two years, even though it carried with it a two-year obligation for active duty when you graduated. So I told Riegel that I would have to enter the Service for two years and after that period of time, then I would join them in the textile business.
Immediately after graduating I married my, you might say, childhood sweetheart, Carolyn, whose family had grown up in the Speed area as well. We had gone to grammar school and high school together. As soon as I graduated from State, we were married and I then went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and that started my first two years of active duty.
At the end of those two years, I left the Service and went to work with Regal Textile Corporation. Although I had thoroughly enjoyed the Service and at that point had almost decided I had made a mistake by not making the Service a career, I had made a commitment to Riegel. I had signed a contract with them and I wanted to keep that contract.
Q – At what point did you decide that the U.S. Military would be your career?
A – Well, after working for Riegel about 60 days, I went home one night and told my wife, Carolyn – I said, you know, I like working for Riegal and obviously the financial reward was much greater. But, I said, I really miss the Armed Forces, the duty that I had, the camaraderie. I missed the excitement. In the interim, the Unit I had been in reported to Vietnam. I was getting cards and letters from my friends that were in my Unit in Vietnam, and I guess I had a sense of duty, a sense of having let them down for not staying with them. But I also had had a tremendous two years in terms of the opportunities in business, the challenges in leadership and management that I had been presented, and so I asked her, “What do you think about me applying for a regular Army commission and making the Army a career?” And in her inimitable fashion she said, “Whatever you want to do, I am with you.” I applied for a regular Army commission. About ten months later an individual from Western Union arrived in the office with a telegram from the Army saying, “your application has been approved and you can now proceed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for Special Warfare training, and join the Green Berets in Vietnam.”
I was with Riegel for 15 months. It was a great time. It gave me a great appreciation for the corporate world and has reassured me that I made the right decision in terms of what Hugh Shelton wanted to do with his life
Q – How have the values learned in North Carolina helped shape your life and career?
A – I believe that my early childhood days in North Carolina really shaped what I am even today in terms of the emphasis that was placed on character, and the value of integrity, of honesty, of selflessness. That was the type of community I grew up in. It was the type of teaching that I received in school as well as in the church. I think the church played a big role, Speed Baptist Church, in those formative years. It was to some degree the same type of role model that I saw when I came to North Carolina State University, and that, I think, is what we look for in terms of leaders in our Armed Forces. We look for individuals of great character, people of great integrity, that are going to make life and death decisions affecting their fellow Americans; people that are willing to give to public service knowing they are not going to receive a lot of financial compensation, but instead receive a much greater sense of reward for participating in the worthy cause of defending this nation and all that we enjoy as Americans. It all tends to dovetail along the way.
I will never forget when I went in and I was asked to see the General Manager at Riegel. He offered to give me a very healthy increase in pay. I said, “It’s not about money.” He offered another big increase in pay. I said, “It’s really not about money.” He said, “Do you realize that if you go back into the Service you may forfeit two-thirds of your lifetime income potential?” And I looked at him, I said, “Mr. Hardyman, I fully understand that. It’s not about money,” and at that point I think he understood and he said, “Well, then, God bless you, and if you ever want a job in the textile industry again, you come back to Riegel and you¹ve got it.” So I left on a great note, but I think he also learned from that session that there are some people that are motivated by things other than dollars.
Q – Who has had the most impact on your life?
A – That’s a tough question, but I would have to say unequivocally that it is my parents. The values that they instilled in me from the beginning are things that have stayed with me throughout my life, have guided my life, and have allowed me to become who I am today.
Q – What are your rules for success in life?
A – Well, I don’t have a set number of rules as some people do. I would say that rule number one is that character, integrity, and standards are what it is all about for any leader. Leadership is nothing more than the ability to influence people, to make them want to be a part of your team, and to accomplish the goals of the organization. I think people look to leaders to be leaders of integrity, leaders of great character, and unless you have got that from the beginning, the chances of you being successful, particularly in the Armed Forces are pretty, pretty slim.
Rule number two: the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Rule number three: there is no limit as to what you can accomplish if you do not mind who gets credit for it, and that ties into selflessness. It ties into doing what is right for the organization and not worrying about whether you get credit for having led the organization to that success. And rule number four is do unto others as you would have them do unto you, going back to what I was taught early on in church, the Golden Rule. Those are the basic rules that I have lived my life by, and to be candid, the ones that I expect others that I have worked for to live by, and I have been very fortunate in that.
Q – Let’s discuss your wife and children. How did you meet your wife, Carolyn, who is also a native of Edgecombe County, North Carolina?
A – Carolyn and I went to grammar school together and then to high school together, and started dating when I was a junior and she was a sophomore. Upon graduation from high school, I went on to State. When she graduated, she went to work for Carolina Telephone Company in Tarboro as a computer operator. That computer in those days filled the size of a room and she was one of the experts in operating this particular computer. She worked for them while I went to State, and as soon as I graduated from State, we were married and I entered the Army. We have been together now for thirty-eight wonderful years. We have three sons. Our first son, John, was born while I was in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg. The year was 1966, Carolyn was living with her parents at the time back in Speed because I was only going to be there for a matter of weeks, and then en route to Vietnam. One morning I received a call that I had a new son and the Commander I worked for at the time, even though we didn’t have any big events planned for that day, decided that it was not appropriate for me to go visit my son. So I really did not see him until he was 12 days old because I went out immediately on an exercise and did not come back for twelve days. Today he is a Secret Service agent and happens to be with President Bush’s detail. I am very proud of him.
Our second son, Jeffrey, was born while I was in Vietnam on my second tour. I had come home from Vietnam after the first tour and had only been here 11 months when I was notified that I would be going back in about 30 days. And so in 1969 I was back in Vietnam, and one day out in the field in a very awkward position, we were under fire from the North Vietnamese, I was basically pinned down at the time. My radio telephone operator next to me had been hit in the face, and about that time I am trying to call a Medevac for him and at the same time trying to direct my platoons to maneuver against this enemy position. My First Sergeant, who was back a long distance away with a big radio is calling me to tell me that I have a new son, Jeffrey Michael, born on this particular date and weighs this much and the Red Cross has said everything is fine with the mother and the son. And I am screaming at the First Sergeant, “Get off the radio,” and he cannot hear me because I am down on the ground face down with a little short whip antenna on my radio that does not put out much power. He is on a big radio, and he does not hear me tell him to get off, so he starts telling me all this again. And I will never forget thinking, I will never see this son alive because I cannot get through to the First Sergeant to tell him to get off the radio. Well, ultimately he gave up. I was able to maneuver the platoon and fortunately the RTO I referred to fully recovered and came out of it okay. That great son is a North Carolina State graduate and married and today is serving in Afghanistan in Special Operations. He is a MH-60 helicopter pilot, and we are very proud of him.
Q – Is Jeffrey in Afghanistan right now?
A – He is in that region right now, yes. It is hard for me to say where he actually is because he is with Special Operations and I cannot tell you where he specifically is right now, but he is with the guys that are doing the work in Afghanistan right now, yes.
Our third son, Mark, was born in 1978. And Mark today is employed by a defense contractor and lives in Florida. He attended Florida State while we lived down in Florida.
Q – How has Carolyn helped your rise to the top?
A – Carolyn has been a wonderful source of both comfort and inspiration and, of course, has served as both mother and father to our three great sons on numerous occasions while I was in Vietnam for two years, while I was in Desert Storm, while I was doing the Haiti operations as well as numerous exercises of deployment. She has carried a heavy load.
In addition, she has been what I would call a model Commander’s wife. She cares about people. She cares about the young soldiers’ wives. During these very stressful periods when we would have deployments and go off to war zones, Carolyn would run the family support groups and be very active in making sure the families were taken care of. In addition, she supported me by going to all the social functions that we had to go to, and did the entertaining in our home that we had to do, over the last 38 years. I could not have asked for a greater individual to accompany me on this great journey.
Q – How many times has your family moved?
A – Carolyn reminds me in our kitchen where we have a thing that hangs on the wall that has a little house at the top, and the inscription says, “Home is where the Army sends you.” Down below that there is a little heart that hangs for each location that you lived. There are 27 of those hearts now. So it’s been 27 times basically within 37 years.
Q – Let’s move into some of your military assignments. Vietnam. Please tell us about your activities during two combat tours in Vietnam, the first with the 5th Special Forces Group in `66-`67, and the second with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in `69-`70.
A – My first tour with the 5th Special Forces Group was a very exciting period. I joined the 5th Group in December of 1966 and was assigned to a Unit known as Project Delta Attachment B-52, 5th Special Forces Group. Project Delta was a long range reconnaissance outfit that was designed to provide strategic intelligence to General Westmoreland, the Commander of all forces in Vietnam, and as such we operated out in no-man’s land where there were no other American units, and it was enemy controlled territory. It was designed to give Westmoreland eyes and ears, for us to find where the enemy was so that we could, in fact, bring in air support on top of the enemy, or if we found large locations, that information would be sent back so that B-52s could fly long range strategic bombing missions against those positions. It was a very, what we call, a hairy operation, a very stressful type of operation. I was there for six months.
Q – Geographically, where was that?
A – Geographically, we operated in the northern part of South Vietnam out along the Laotian border and up along the North Vietnam border out in the triangle area. One day, at the end of that first six months, the Commander of all Special Forces up in the northern region visited our Unit. He had just had an A-Team, which is the basic Special Forces 12-man team, that had a series of posts. I think there were eight or nine of these posts spread throughout the northern part of South Vietnam that basically tried to use indigenous forces known as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, Vietnamese and Montagnards, to try to control that, to deny those areas to the North Vietnamese and protect the South Vietnamese people that lived there. That day the Commander of one of those camps out on the Laotian border had been relieved of his duty and the Executive Officer had been killed. The Commander of Special Forces needed someone to go in there immediately, and he asked me if I would be willing to go command that team, and I immediately said I would if the current Unit would be willing to let me go. And after a little negotiating, they allowed me to go and take command.
So for the last six months, I commanded this A-Team along with about 600 Civilian Irregular Defense Group members, and we did patrols, and it was a very exciting time. You are out in the middle of nowhere. You are in this little camp. They ran at that time what they called a hit parade in the I-Corps of the northern part of South Vietnam. They listed those eight camps in the intelligence community to say, “These are the ones we anticipate getting hit next,” and for six months I was number one on that hit list – and a lot of that had to do with how effective the North Vietnamese felt these camps were. If you really had been an impediment to their operation, they felt the need to take you out.
I stayed on that for six months. We did not get hit with large forces. We got hit several times with smaller forces. But about a week after I left the camp, it was overrun, and tragically we experienced the loss of some great Americans that were there, but that was an exciting period. I came back for 11 months, and served at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, basically training soldiers, 100 percent of whom were going to Vietnam. They were using the leadership that had been in Vietnam to teach the young recruits what they could anticipate and some tactics, techniques and procedures to basically try to preserve their lives.
I did that for 11 months. I was notified that I was going back again. They said they wanted to send me to Korea for a tour. And I said, “Why Korea? There is no fighting going on in Korea. If I am going overseas and have to leave my family again, why don’t you send me back to Vietnam where the bullets are flying and where I can contribute to help and try to win this war.” And so they very quickly accommodated my request, and I went back to Vietnam for another tour. This time they asked where I wanted to go and I asked for the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It was the first Unit to go into Vietnam. It was an Airborne Unit that had a great reputation and had fought very valiantly at DAK To in the Battle of Hill 875, and I wanted to join that outfit and was allowed to do that, and it turned out to be a great
I led a Company, about a 155-man Unit. I served as an Intelligence Officer for a Battalion, about an 800-man Unit, and then also had a chance to serve as the Operations Officer of that Unit. So it was a great one-year tour, and I came out of that, out of both tours, feeling that the Americans that served there were doing a tremendous job for this nation, even though, as we all know, the war back at home was not receiving very much support. In fact, popular support was at an all time low. It was a very difficult time for the Armed Forces because the men and women in the Armed Forces then were doing what the nation asked of them, just as they do today in Afghanistan or did in Desert Storm, but there was not an understanding that they were separate from the political issues that were ongoing relating to the Vietnam War, and so the Armed Forces suffered. Morale, I think, plummeted to an all time low, even though the Americans that served there were as great as any Americans that ever wore the uniform.
Q – What political and military mistakes were made by the U.S. government during the Vietnam War, and what should the American people do to make sure those mistakes never happen again?
A – Americans understand when an endeavor is in America’s best national interest, particularly if it is laid out very clearly for them. I think that if the Americans that had traditionally been behind the Armed Forces felt that the government had made the right decisions and was in the process of making the right decisions, and the government had informed the American people as to why this particular conflict was in America’s best interest, the Vietnam War would have had better support.
I think we entered into Vietnam without any clearly laid out objectives. We entered into it without explaining to the American people why it was so important, without ensuring that we built public support for the operations in Vietnam, and certainly throughout the next ten years keeping that public support. I think the real lesson we learned is anytime that you are going to use America’s Armed Forces or any element of America’s national power to include political, diplomatic and economic, that you need the support of the American people as represented by their members of Congress. And if you do not have that as a part of your campaign plan, your master strategy for going into this undertaking, this endeavor, then you will lose the support of the people. And if the people are not supporting it, then why are you
still pursuing it? That came out to me loud and clear.
The second issue we faced there was not using all the elements even of our military power to win. To place artificial restrictions on the use of force, to try to only use force that will be politically popular back home, not to upset anybody’s apple cart, not to use everything in our power to go for the jugular vein, to use technology and our war fighting skills to win and win quickly and decisively, which we did not do in Vietnam, was a great mistake and I think we learned our lesson from that.
Certainly, the military leadership today, your Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not stand by and watch us be put into a position that would be restricted like that again. That’s just not the right thing to do, and I think that you would see them speaking out publicly and loudly that this is not what we ought to be doing.