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The Woman Next to General Shelton: An Interview With Mrs. Carolyn Shelton

written by Kanani Fong
on October 20, 2010

book cover shelton.jpgEarlier this month, Gen. Hugh Shelton published his autobiography, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior. In the book, Gen. Shelton covers his North Carolina upbringing, wars, the ins and outs of the Army, serving as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, lastly, his retirement. Throughout the book, Shelton writes about the support of his wife, Carolyn, during his 38-year career in the Army. His wife, three sons and grandchildren have been his most treasured assets. After reading Without Hesitation, I spoke with Carolyn Shelton about her husband's career and her life as a military spouse.

It would be tempting to think of Carolyn Shelton as a superwoman. Yet in our interview, she was quick to caution that even in the military, there is no such thing. While she feels blessed to have inherited her mother's calm and patience, there were times she felt overwhelmed by life as a military spouse. Mrs. Shelton's advice to military spouses whose list of demands grows exponentially the minute their loved one deploys is to take it one event at a time. "Step back and concentrate on the most important people in your life, your family."

Sheltonfamily2010.jpgGeneral and Mrs. Hugh Shelton and family, 2010.

The Sheltons experienced the same stresses as any military family. Moving was never easy, and they moved twenty-three times. In one move from Fort Drum, their son was wrenched away during his senior year of high school from his first serious girlfriend. Over the years, Mrs. Shelton has tried to ease their moves, "I did try to make each place into our home as quickly as I could, and provide ways for them to meet people through sports, school, or neighbors." Though saying goodbye was painful, Mrs. Shelton found that often she and her family would meet up with old friends at another post.

The marriage between Carolyn and Hugh Shelton spanned the time between letters sent by post and video chats done via Skype. During the Vietnam War, though she didn't know how he found the time or energy, he wrote everyday, as she did to him. In his book, Gen. Shelton writes about being impaled by a punji stake in Vietnam. Laying in the hospital, he thought, "Damn, do I tell Carolyn about this or not?" The two had a candid relationship.

Every day, she'd walk to the post office hoping to find a letter. Some weeks, she wouldn't receive any. Other times seven would arrive in a single day. Mrs. Shelton read them alone and in private. Like other women throughout history waiting for the return of their warrior, Mrs. Shelton would cry. Yet, she felt fortunate. "I was luckier than wives during World War II, when they sometimes went months without hearing from their husbands."

She's sympathetic to the military spouses today, who endure frequent deployments. "The frequent dangerous deployments have to take a toll on all military families. It means more time either alone or being both Mom and Dad, which is never easy." She advises the spouses of wounded warriors to get to know the others spouses their unit, as they can both give and receive support.

General Shelton's career took the family many places, and it also required much work from Mrs. Shelton. His final command was as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from 1997 to 2001. She traveled with him on official business on occasion, including one trip where the Indonesian Special Forces were showing them how its soldiers lived off the land. After watching soldiers skin a boa constrictor alive and then watching the poor creature slither away, the Sheltons observed other demonstrations involving swords and motorcycles. Then lunch was offered: it was grilled boa. With diplomatic aplomb, Mrs. Shelton ate it. Her husband still doesn't know how she managed it, yet, here was another instance of a military spouse representing her country and doing it well. Perhaps it was the constant changes that inspired Mrs. Shelton to make this statement without hesitation: "In looking back, neither of us would have chosen any other life."

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