JEFFERSON CITY — Departing House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton said Thursday that he fears a chasm will develop between U.S. military troops and the rest of the citizenry.
For the 24th straight year, Skelton was the keynote speaker Thursday at the Veterans Day ROTC breakfast at Lincoln University. It was his first public event since the longtime Democratic Missouri congressman lost last week's election to Republican Vicky Hartzler.
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," Skelton said.
Although Skelton based his unsuccessful re-election campaign on military issues, he 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 Sept. 11, 2001, will fade in the American consciousness, and that the purpose of our efforts against extremist terrorists will fade," Skelton 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, got defeated or are trailing in a close vote, including the chairmen of its readiness and sea power subcommittees.
Turnover also is expected in President Barack 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.
Since he first won election to Congress in 1976, Skelton said the U.S. has been involved in 12 military conflicts. 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 Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and suggesting he had lost touch with the fiscally conservative views of his rural district. Hartzler criticized Skelton for supporting the economic stimulus act, bank bailout and climate control legislation, which she said would drive up costs for Missouri electricity consumers who are heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants.
During the campaign, Skelton questioned Hartzler's commitment to the military. She responded by organizing a group of veterans to back her campaign. House Republican Leader John Boehner, who is expected to become House speaker, also pledged to support Hartzler for a seat on the House Armed Services Committee.