Lawmaker fears 'chasm' between troops and public
JEFFERSON CITY, MO. - Rep. Ike Skelton, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that he fears the development of "a chasm" between U.S. military troops and the rest of the citizenry.
For the 24th straight year, Skelton (D-Mo.) was the keynote speaker at the Veterans Day ROTC breakfast at Lincoln University. It was his first public event since Republican Vicky Hartzler defeated him in last week's election.
Skelton, 78, treated the speech as a political farewell, recounting how he dedicated his career to improving conditions for military troops, veterans and their families and to expanding the missions of Fort Leonard Wood, Whiteman Air Force Base and the Missouri National Guard - all based in his district.
He expressed concern about the ability of the next Congress - led by Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate and White House - to find consensus. But he said his greatest concern is the potential for waning attention to the military.
"I am fearful that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected," he said.
Skelton, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, bemoaned that there was little national discussion during this year's election about the ongoing fight against terrorism and the conflicts in the Middle East.
"I am concerned that the attacks on September 11, 2001, will fade in the American consciousness, and that the purpose of our efforts against extremist terrorists will fade," he said. "It could come to pass that the American military could become isolated from American society and that Americans in their thoughts may fail to consider our men and women in uniform."
In addition to Skelton, the House Armed Services Committee lost one-fourth of its other Democratic members in last week's elections.
Five of the panel's six most senior Democrats either retired, lost or are trailing in a close vote, including the chairmen of its readiness and sea power subcommittees.
Turnover also is expected in President Obama's administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he plans to retire next year.
Skelton answered carefully when asked Thursday if he would be interested in the position.
"I would like to do something positive for our country," he said, adding, "I feel I have a fair amount of understanding of things military."
Skelton said the greatest challenge for the secretary of defense is to ensure that the military is ready in size, training and equipment for whatever threats may occur. He said he was concerned that a renewed quest for spending cuts could shortchange the military's efforts to be prepared for future conflicts and could ultimately put national security at risk.
Also, he said, "I sincerely worry that the needs of military families will be overlooked as we go through this budget drama."
Hartzler defeated Skelton by casting him as an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and suggesting that he had lost touch with the fiscally conservative views of his rural district.
- Associated Press