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Remembering Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri

Rudy deLeon remembers former Rep. Ike Skelton and his contributions to American military policy.

The U.S. Department of Education building is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 2019. (Getty/Alastair Pike)
The U.S. Department of Education building is seen in Washington, D.C., on July 22, 2019. (Getty/Alastair Pike)

The landmark Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which Congress passed in 1986, made fundamental, lasting reforms to military operations and practices and provided the foundation for the highly professional, capable force we have today. But where credit is rightly given to former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and D-Day survivor and former Rep. Bill Nichols (D-AL), a third name should be added to the list of those responsible for this important achievement: Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri (D).

In the wake of the deadly 1983 bombing of the U.S. and French barracks in Beirut, which killed 299 American and French servicemen, Rep. Les Aspin (R-WI) of the House Armed Services Committee asked Skelton, then a young representative from Missouri, to study the lessons of the U.S. Marine peacekeeping mission in Lebanon and the earlier failed attempt to rescue American diplomats who were held hostage in Iran.

Skelton led the initial study outlining the need to reform military operations and thinking. After Air Force Gen. David Jones, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told experts that change was needed, Ike was tireless in pressing the need for a comprehensive review.

The findings of Skelton’s study were the first major policy discussions in the process that formed the basis of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, fundamentally reshaped the American military, and demonstrated perhaps Ike’s greatest strength: his determination.

As a young boy, Ike Skelton contracted polio. The disease affected the use of his arms but not his legs. To run track in high school, coaches tied a belt around his body to keep his arms steady; his condition couldn’t keep him off the track. Skelton’s early determination would continue throughout his career, as he tenaciously improved and protected the welfare of Americans in the armed forces.

He went to the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles with President Harry Truman and formed a friendship with the former president during Truman’s last decade alive. Ike was close to his Missouri delegation colleague Rep. Dick Gephardt (D) and a confidant of Les Aspin at the House Armed Services Committee. Skelton’s friendships in Washington, D.C., and throughout the military contributed to the broad bipartisan consensus that characterized U.S. foreign and military policy for so long and helped protect the bond between the professional military and the civilians they serve and protect.

Alongside his professional dedication and deep interest in American and military history, Ike was always happy to share his time and knowledge with all sorts of people, from the Staff Director of his committee to the freshest of interns. His eyes would light up when discussing the training techniques of foreign militaries or Stonewall Jackson’s tactics in the Shenandoah campaign; this intellectual curiosity and openness came to characterize the committee that he led and the military he helped shape.

Determined, good natured, ambitious in the way an eagle scout is ambitious, and gentle, Skelton was a good man who did his best. The two of us worked with Ike at the House Armed Services Committee, and we will always remember him.

Rudy deLeon is the Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Max Hoffman is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

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Rudy deLeon

Senior Fellow

Max Hoffman

Former Senior Director