General Shelton

About General Shelton

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To hear a talk from General Shelton on Political and Military Challenges during Presidential Transitions (2.2.09), click here.

General Henry Hugh Shelton, USA (R)

14th Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Center Founder and Executive Director

Henry Hugh Shelton was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, and grew up on a farm near the small town of Speed. After graduating from North Edgecombe High School, he entered North Carolina State University. He enjoyed the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and enrolled for an additional two years beyond the two then mandatory for men attending land-grant colleges.

General Shelton in decorated military uniform


When he received his Bachelor of Science in textile technology in June 1963, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry in the Army Reserve.

Lieutenant Shelton spent two years on active duty at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was a platoon leader first with the 2d Infantry Division and then with the 1st Cavalry Division. While at Fort Benning, he completed the Ranger course at the Army Infantry School, qualified as a parachutist, and was promoted to first lieutenant. Shelton remained in the Army Reserve when he returned to civilian life in July 1965 to work for Regal Textile Corporation in Ware Shoals, South Carolina, a job he had accepted before entering military service. Although promoted before completing the company’s training program, he decided that he preferred Army life and in 1966 applied to return to active duty as an officer in the Regular Army.


Several months later he received orders to report to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for training in preparation for assignment to the Special Forces in Vietnam. Shelton served from September 1966 until July 1967 with the 5th Special Forces Group along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, engaged in cross-border operations to impede the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam. Promoted in March 1967, Captain Shelton received command of Detachment A-104 at Ha Thanh in the mountains of Quang Ngai province in South Vietnam in July. Through December 1967 he worked with the South Vietnamese Special Forces and local Montagnard tribesmen to disrupt Viet Cong infiltration across the Laotian border. He received a Purple Heart after a poisoned punji stake drove through his leg and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor for leading the repulse of Viet Cong that had attacked one of his South Vietnamese patrols.


Following his tour with the Special Forces, Captain Shelton was assigned to the Army Training Center at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He would spend most of the rest of his career in airborne and light infantry units. In January 1969 he returned to Vietnam as an intelligence officer with the 173d Airborne Brigade, subsequently becoming a company commander and later acting battalion operations officer. From March 1970 through July 1972 he was back at Fort Benning at the Army Infantry School, initially as a student in the Infantry Officer Advanced Course and then as an instructor and later an operations officer in the Florida Phase, Ranger Department.


In June 1973 Shelton graduated from the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and received a master’s degree in political science from Auburn University. From Alabama, he went to the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, where he held several staff positions, including Executive Officer of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry, 2d Brigade, and was promoted to major in February 1974. Major Shelton’s next assignment was with the Army Military Personnel Center, Alexandria, Virginia, where he served from June 1977 until April 1979 handling the career management and assignments of other majors.


Promoted to lieutenant colonel in November 1978, Shelton assumed command of the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, 2d Brigade, 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, in April 1979. In June 1981 he became the division’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations. Selected to attend the National War College, Fort McNair, Washington, DC, in 1982 and 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Shelton then served a brief tour at the Pentagon. Assigned to the Army Staff in June 1983, he chaired the Reserve Components Study Group in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel until his promotion to colonel in October, when he received command of the 1st Brigade, 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. While brigade commander, Colonel Shelton directed a combined arms task force during several overseas deployments. In November 1985 he became Chief of Staff of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York.


After his selection for brigadier general, Shelton served in the Operations Directorate on the Joint Staff from July 1987 until July 1989 as a deputy director of the National Military Command Center and then as Deputy Director for Current Operations. He received his first star in August 1988. From the Joint Staff, Shelton went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as an assistant division commander with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Brigadier General Shelton led the division’s forces in a deep helicopter assault into Iraq. The division was poised to block Iraqi units fleeing to Baghdad when the war ended.


Over the next five years, Shelton held two of the Army’s most prestigious commands. In May 1991 he returned to Fort Bragg as Commanding General of the 82d Airborne Division; he was promoted to major general that October. He assumed command of XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg upon promotion to lieutenant general in June 1993. As corps commander, Lieutenant General Shelton gained national prominence leading the multinational operation which in 1994 restored an environment safe for the return of Haiti’s democratically elected government. Shelton received his fourth star on 1 March 1996 after becoming Commander in Chief of the US Special Operations Command (USCINCSOC) at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, on 29 February. Leading the command during a period of greatly increased demand for special operations forces worldwide, General Shelton defined the characteristics necessary for these forces to function effectively well into the twenty-first century. During his tenure the largest operational commitment of special operations forces was to the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.


General Shelton became the fourteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 1997. He was the first to possess a special operations background, expertise that fit well with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen’s interest in unconventional warfare. Shelton often stated that he did not believe in “fair fights” and endorsed the use of overwhelming force when committing American troops to combat.

While the end of the Cold War had brought major reductions in the size of the US military and in the number of forces permanently stationed overseas, its operational tempo had risen sharply during the Clinton administration. At the time General Shelton became Chairman, the United States had already been involved in peace operations in Bosnia since 1993. During his first term, additional forces became engaged in counterdrug operations in Latin America, peace operations in Kosovo, and enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq, to name but a few instances. In August 1998 the United States also retaliated against terrorist attacks at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by launching cruise missiles against terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.


In this uncertain strategic environment, General Shelton believed the US military had to be prepared to undertake flexible missions with well-defined and limited objectives. Force readiness, therefore, was a top priority. In 1999 he led the Joint Chiefs of Staff in winning administration and congressional support for major reforms to improve military pay and retirement, as well as resources to maintain and modernize the military. General Shelton also prioritized force integration and interoperability. He recommended replacing the Atlantic Command with a new organization focused on oversight of joint doctrine and experimentation and the preparation of US-based forces for deployment overseas. This occurred in October 1999, when US Joint Forces Command came into existence, the same day that Shelton began his second term as Chairman.


In May 2000 General Shelton released “Joint Vision 2020: America’s Military—Preparing for Tomorrow.” He advocated a gradual transformation of the joint force that would enable it to dominate the full spectrum of future military operations. By replacing or modernizing existing equipment, incorporating new technologies, and preparing highly trained personnel, the joint force could “conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronized operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations.” General Shelton identified asymmetric threats as the nation’s most serious near-term danger, but also prioritized the need to maintain a strategic deterrence posture, which included an “overseas presence and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide.” As if to emphasize the danger from asymmetric threats, al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists attacked the USS Cole in a Yemeni harbor five months later.


President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, installing Donald H. Rumsfeld as his Secretary of Defense. The new secretary championed a rapid transformation of the military to meet 21st Century challenges, using the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review to shift toward a force structure defined by joint capabilities, rather than regional requirements. General Shelton supported this OSD initiative, but cautioned against compromising current readiness to accomplish future modernization and maintained that existing regional threats warranted a significant overseas presence. Consistent with his earlier efforts to improve the quality of life for service personnel and their families, he reiterated that people remained the nation’s most critical strategic asset.

Al-Qaeda operatives launched multiple terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, striking the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Already scheduled to retire in October, General Shelton spent his remaining weeks in office coordinating military plans to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan and helping to develop an interagency strategy to defeat, disrupt, and degrade terrorist activities around the world; these endeavors would become known as Operation ENDURING FREEDOM and the Global War on Terrorism.


President Bush later awarded General Shelton a Congressional Gold Medal, recognizing more than thirty-eight years of dedicated military service. Following retirement, he served as Executive Director of the General Hugh Shelton Leadership Center at North Carolina State University, established in 2002, and Director of the Hugh and Carolyn Shelton Military Neurotrauma Foundation, established in 2005. He has also held senior management positions in several corporations, most involving the defense industry.

Highlights of his civilian awards include the Charlotte (NC) World Affairs Council World Citizen Award for 2002, North Carolina’s highest Award for Public Service, the Eisenhower Award from the Business Executives for National Security, the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, Intrepid Freedom Award, and recognition as National Father of the Year, among others.

For his exemplary service to his country, the 107th Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal on General Shelton on September 19, 2002.


General Shelton is the 2008 recipient of the United States Army Infantry’s Doughboy award and the 2009 NFL and College Football Hall of Fame Distinguished American award. He was also presented the Army Special Operations Professionals Man of the Year award in 2009.

After retiring from the Armed Forces, General Shelton served as President, International Operations, M.I.C. Industries from 2001-2005. He has also served as on a number of public company including Anheuser Busch Companies, Anteon International, Professional Products of America, and Red Hat, Inc.

Present Day

General Shelton is the Executive Director of the General H. Hugh Shelton Leadership Center at North Carolina State University and serves as Director of the Hugh and Carolyn Shelton Military Neurotrauma Foundation, Washington, DC.


His books include “Secrets of Success, Values-Based Leaders,” which was released in 2009 and his autobiography, “Without Hesitation,” released in 2010.

To hear a talk from General Shelton on Political and Military Challenges during Presidential Transitions (2.2.09) click here.

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