There’s no place like home

Photo taken at Thanksgiving last year at the cabin, used as a gift shop at one time. From left: Billy Warren Shelton, Gwendolyn, John, Sarah, Paul, Rebecca and Jim Slife.

No matter where in the world ‘home’ is at the moment, the one thing Gwendolyn (Shelton) Slife makes sure to put up first in each new residence, is a memento made for her by her father, Billy Warren Shelton. The delicate chain of wooden hearts has the names of all of the places she and her husband, Jim Slife, and their children have lived over the past 27 years. 

 Lt. Gen. Jim Slife is the Vice Commander, Headquarters U.S. Special Operations Command, Washington, D.C. As such, General Slife is responsible for planning, coordinating, and executing actions with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Services, and other government agencies in the National Capital Region on behalf of the Commander U.S. Special Operations Command.

Born outside of Detroit, Jim Slife grew up in Hot Springs, Arkansas. While in college at Auburn University, he was commissioned through the ROTC program. What he thought would be a four-year stint became the career of a lifetime.

Lt. Gen. Jim Slife has spent the majority of his career in special operations aviation assignments, deploying extensively.  As a special operations officer he has had the good fortune to be a participant in the most momentous events since 9/11. Many of them are still classified. 

For his family, this meant more moving around than the average family. At last count, Gwendolyn and their children, Sarah, born in 1995 in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, John, born in 1996 in Washington, D.C., and twins Paul and Rebecca, born in 1998 in England, have moved 15 times in 27 years. 

The couple, college sweethearts who began their relationship as neighbors in Auburn, began dating about six months after they met in late 1987. She brought him to Moulton for the first time that fall, about this time of the year. “We were driving down the Old Moulton Road and she kept pointing out landmarks and places where her cousins or uncles or grandparents lived,” he chuckled. “I began to get the sense of how connected she was.” 

Coming from a small family it might have been a bit overwhelming considering the sheer number of relatives Gwendolyn possessed, but he was delighted with the big, boisterous family. Members of her extended family were still living in the historic Shelton House at the time. He became smitten with its history right away. 

They enjoyed a traditional Southern Thanksgiving meal on that first visit. 

 He went on to graduate from Auburn University in 1989, with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering after which he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force.  Throughout his career, he continued his education, eventually picking up four master’s degrees.

He elected to train as a helicopter pilot, and did his first stint at Ft. Rucker in Ozark, Alabama.  Afterward, he stayed on in Ft. Rucker as an instructor pilot and was near Gwendolyn who was still in college in Auburn. Gwendolyn graduated Auburn University in June of 1991 with a degree in Fashion Merchandising. 

 They were married in July of that year in Moulton at the Church of Christ, surrounded by friends and family one month after Gwendolyn’s graduation, eager to begin their military life together.  

 Before their wedding day, Gwendolyn’s brother, Roger, built like a linebacker and twice as tough, took Jim for a ride in his pick-up truck; ostensibly to show him some of the more popular local sites, but that was just a ruse to get him away from Gwendolyn. “Look, I don’t care if you marry her,” Roger got right to the point. “Just don’t take her out of Alabama!”

Slife’s first assignment after four months at Ft. Rucker was in Albuquerque, N.M. Gwendolyn was twenty-two at the time. It would be the first of many moves, and countless trips for her parents to wherever she was at the time, especially when the grandchildren started coming along. Roger might have been disappointed, but their mother loved the adventure that she realized would become Gwendolyn’s life.  “Mom loved visiting all of the places we moved,” laughed Gwendolyn, “She especially loved antique shopping in England! But her favorite thing of all was visiting with her grandchildren.” Her dad, she said with a sly grin in his direction, was a good sport about it. 

Their service to the country took them to Ft. Walton Beach three times, New Mexico, twice, Washington, D.C. three times, England twice, Tampa, twice and Korea, with a stop in Alabama along the way. 

She admits that it was hard at times, raising four children with her husband gone so much. It was especially hard early in his career when he was deployed and communication was through written letters. There were many occasions when his location was so sensitive that he couldn’t talk about what he was doing or where he was.

She coped by staying busy with the kids and getting involved on the military bases. “I kept them in dance lessons, art, sports and the boys were active in Boy Scouts,” she explained. “It was difficult with their dad gone so often, but they were mainly surrounded by military kids so they didn’t see it as anything unusual.” 

“Both boys are Eagle Scouts,” said their grandfather proudly.  

Jim’s job was demanding. At times he was in critical places that will be taught in world history classes for the next several generations. He’s come a long way since graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant at Auburn.  Jim has progressed through the Air Force ranks and received his third star this past summer.  He is one of less than forty Lieutenant Generals among 330,000 uniformed members of the Air Force.  The family now resides in Washington, DC.  His office is in the Pentagon.

Pretty impressive for a guy who never planned to make a career of the military. “I intended to do my four years and then go back to being a civilian, but after I got into it I liked it,” he said. “I felt that what we were doing was important, I liked the lifestyle, and it gave me a sense of purpose.” 

He especially enjoyed the teamwork and the camaraderie. The couple and their children have formed lifelong friendships with the families who came up the ranks the same way Jim did. “As a military family you quickly learn to make friends, forming that support network that you need for the entire family,” Gwendolyn pointed out. “You can’t help but put down roots each time.”

And each time she faithfully rehangs her touchstone; the chain of hearts that her dad made so that she could keep track of where she was and where she’d been.  They’ve always made it a point to do their best, when logistically possible, to return to Moulton and her family for Thanksgiving. Being in the country is a real treat, the openness is a welcome respite from living in cities and on military bases. 

Sarah once captured the feeling in an essay for a writing class. Home is Where the Food Tastes Good.

Children of the Air Force spend their years bouncing from place to place, culture to culture. As every military child knows, each new city and town has its own unique flavor and food ties a community together. My childhood was smorgasbord of local dishes; Florida is swimming with prime seafood restaurants, New Mexico has a tortilla-wrapped item on every menu, and England has the iconic fish and chips. I cleanse my palette with every move my family makes, preparing my stomach for a new genre of food for the next few years. 

This rapid change of flavors and people often brought a feeling of instability to my life. 

Blending in with the locals took time and it seemed as I finally discovered the secrets of the town, my family hit the road again and ventured off to a new locale. I understood this was my way of life and while I loved the experiences and food that came with each move, I occasionally found myself feeling like a foreigner in my own home. I searched for a feeling of “home” for many years until I realized that my version of home laid in summers spent on a farm, soaking in the hot sun of Alabama and eating home grown, traditional southern dishes. 

Every summer, my family would pack our bags and head to my grandparents’ farm, greeted by barking dogs and the smell of something delicious cooking in the oven. 

“Hey, y’all!” my grandma would exclaim between hugs and kisses. “You made it just in time; the pot roast just finished!” We would all gather in the kitchen and immediately grab a plate, filling it up with tender meat and fresh vegetables from the garden. I would pile my plate up as high as I could, scarfing down the expertly cooked meal in between talking about the long drive, school, or how much we have all grown (or in my case, not grown). We ate until the top button of our pants popped off, and sighed that we couldn’t have another bite. “Oh, I made cake, cookies, and a pie,” my grandmother would casually state, laughing as we grabbed our plates hoping we would have room for dessert. 

Mornings on the farm would start with the smell of biscuits in the oven wafting through the house and the sound of bacon sizzling on the skillet. My   grandmother settled for nothing but the best and made her biscuits from scratch, often with my mother, sister, and me gathered around following her directions. 

“Now, Sarah, just add a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of flour in that dough,” she coaxed as she pulled yet another batch of biscuits out of the oven that always seemed to be on. 

“What constitutes as a pinch? Is this enough? How much is a ‘sprinkle of flour’?” My grandmother never used exact measurements and instead used her instincts during cooking, estimating a tablespoon and adding to and subtracting from the recipe as she went. I was always amazed at how incredible her cooking was without even trying, using taste and natural tendencies to adjust the recipes as she went along. Her cooking was truly natural and from the heart, not shaped by the conforming ways of the outside world and written recipes. 

After breakfast, we would venture to the garden with a basket, walking barefoot through the mud and choosing ripe fruits and vegetables from the large variety available. She had everything from cucumbers to corn, peanuts to pears. Her vast assortment of home grown food was incredible; the food she cooked always depended on what was in season at the time. Her garden contained more food than her and my grandpa could consume alone, so many times there were family friends and neighbors walking through the wonderland of fresh delicacies, picking what they needed and thanking her on the way out. Her garden was a representation of herself, open to others and ready to give at any moment. 

We sat on the hammock and swung back and forth during the afternoon, eating our simple tomato sandwiches and shelling buckets of beans for dinner. My grandmother would tell stories of her childhood to us, explaining how she was shaped by the country and grew up in a time that was uncomplicated and more natural than our world now. 

“When I was your age,” she would start in the stereotypical grandparent way, “I would go outside, grab a chicken by the neck and swing it around then prepare it for dinner,” she matter-of-factly stated, making this act sound like a common thing that everyone does. She had a sharp, country-shaped side to her that can only be found in people that grew up with the land, molded by the country. 

As we cooked dinner together, she would tell us stories about her mother teaching her how to cook, how the recipes that she uses are from her mother and grandmothers. These recipes were passed down from generations gone by to my generation, being slightly altered to fit the taste preferences of each new owner of the recipe. Each recipe had a corresponding story she would tell, showing how the food we were eating was strongly associated with a sense of family and the bringing together of generations. 

Food was my grandmother’s passion. She felt it was what brought a community and family together, even when family members lived oceans apart. My grandparents’ house was renovated so the kitchen was the biggest room in the house, complete with two large kitchen tables so family members can gather while the food was cooking. Her cooking matched her personality: rustic, soulful, and full of flavor. Even though she has since passed away, her kitchen is still filled with family and food, just how she intended. 

In a world where your new home changes in the blink of an eye, finding a sense of stability is important for your sanity. I found my feeling of home in traditional southern food. 

To this day, sitting around the table and enjoying a southern home-cooked meal grounds my hectic life. To me and my grandmother, food provides a sense of home, family, and comfort.

Gwendolyn says that when she was a young mom, her mother, Nancy, was her anchor.  “We missed living close to family and the farm quickly became a place to escape our busy lives that all of us enjoyed.”  That’s why the Slifes still make such a tremendous effort to be home for Thanksgiving each year.  “Thanksgiving has always been one of our families favorite gathering times and there is no where we had rather be then spending it on the farm with my Dad each year.  We miss  mom being there but I know she is smiling down on us as we still gather around her kitchen table preparing the same menu she always prepared using her recipes.  We all consider the farm home.”

Gwendolyn says that they all can find something good about everywhere they’ve ever lived.  “We are thankful that we have been able to travel the world and see many beautiful places and make so many wonderful friends. “

On September 11, 2001, the family was going about their normal routine. Jim was in a class in Montgomery. He recalls thinking that it would all be over before his class was finished, but he was surprised when he found himself heading to Afghanistan not long afterward.   

Among his many trips to the Middle East he led the first mission into Iraq (two days prior to the invasion, spearheading a mission to place special ops units behind enemy lines). 

He can’t tell much about his missions, just enough to say he has seen some of the most beautiful and some of the poorest places on earth. He gets a pensive look in his eyes, staring out over the farm as scenes from his career flash through his mind. 

East Africa was one of his least favorite places to work; Pakistan was one of the most violent. Korea was possibly the most beautiful, they all agree.  

As his career advanced, so did his skills.  He is rated as a command pilot with 3,100 flight hours flying an MH-53, MQ-1, as well as other aircraft.  

Among many other awards and decorations, he has received the following:  

Defense Superior Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters

Bronze Star Medal with oak leaf cluster

Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters

Air Force Combat Action Medal

He was also named the 1998 Air Force Special Operations Command Pilot of the Year, the 2002 Air Force Historical Foundation Writing Award - Best SAAS Thesis, “Creech Blue: General Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978-1984” and in 2008, the Major General John R. Alison Special Operations Educator of the Year. 

He has always had the welfare of his men in mind in any mission. Sometimes those missions ended in tragedy and he recalls the anniversary of every one of them.

He made sure that the morale of the troops under his command was high, and when he felt that they needed a boost, he did things like booking Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band to come and play for them. (You may recall that Sinise played the part of Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump).

Gwendolyn is understandably and overwhelmingly proud of her husband and the work he has done. “And we are extremely proud of all four children,” she said. “They are strong, independent, and resilient and even though moving every year or two was hard for them they rarely complained.”  

Sarah graduated from Auburn University last December with a psychology degree and is now doing commercial property management in Auburn. John expects to graduate from Yale University in the spring with a mechanical engineering and political science dual major and will earn his commission as an Air Force officer when he does.  He will go to pilot training after graduation at Shepard Air Force Base in Texas.  Rebecca excels in her second year at High Point University in North Carolina as a studio art major and Paul is in his second year studying information technology and computer science at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Paul says that he has always appreciated the military way of life. Even at play when they were young, the Slife children, like other kids on military bases all over the world, would stop what they were doing and salute as the National Anthem was played each evening over speakers reaching the entire base. One of Jim’s most poignant memories was captured in a photo of his children and a couple of neighbors while they were swimming in the shallow waters behind their house in Fort Walton Beach.  They stopped, faced the direction from which the familiar resonance was coming and saluted silently, glistening water dripping down tanned legs, damp hair plastered to their sun kissed foreheads – America’s future freedom fighters standing in knee deep salt water. It symbolizes just how much some of us take for granted in our everyday lives, and how much we are indebted to families like the Slifes’ who have answered the call of service to our country.

When the Slifes’ decide to retire, the couple plans to make their home in Moulton, probably renovating the Shelton House, and settling down to the rhythm of life in a small town.  

Slife will have naught to fear about having nothing to do because he already knows more of the Shelton history than most people born and raised hereabouts. His passion has become genealogy, and he will have plenty to keep him busy when the time comes. His fascination with the Shelton clan began when one of their children had to do a family history for a school project. 

Until then, Gwendolyn will keep opening a special box each time they move, making sure that the handcrafted chain of hearts holds pride of place in their new home.

Make no mistake, although it’s the father, or in some cases, the mother, who serves, everyone in a military family feels like a part of the military. In many ways just being exposed to the values exemplified by the adults around them allows children of these extraordinary families to be more conscious of how much the men and women of the armed forces sacrifice for others. 

 Somewhere in the world tonight, people like Jim Slife keep a watchful eye on situations all over the world so that we can sleep in peace. Gen. Slife, we salute you and your family this holiday season, and always. 

  

  Sidebar;

Lt. Gen. Slife’s career at a glance:

1. March 1990 - November 1990, helicopter student pilot, 3588th Flying Training Squadron, Fort Rucker, Ala.

2. December 1990 - October 1991, UH-1H instructor pilot, 3588th Flying Training Squadron, Fort Rucker, Ala.

3. November 1991 - June 1992, MH-53J student pilot, 1550th Technical Combat Helicopter Training Squadron, Kirtland AFB, N.M.

4. July 1992 - July 1995, MH-53J instructor pilot, 20th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla.

5. August 1995 - May 1997, Air Force intern, Office of the Director, Air Force Legislative Liaison and Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and the Environment, Arlington, Va.

6. June 1997 - August 1997, MH-53J requalification student, Kirtland AFB, N.M.

7. September 1997 - July 2000, Assistant Director of Operations and flight examiner pilot, 21st Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England

8. August 2000 - June 2001, Air Command and Staff College student, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

9. July 2001 - June 2002, School of Advanced Airpower Studies student, Maxwell AFB, Ala.

10. June 2002 - June 2004, Director of Operations, 20th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla.

11. June 2004 - February 2006, Commander, 21st Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England

12. February 2006 - July 2006, Deputy Commander, 352nd Special Operations Group, RAF Mildenhall, England

13. July 2006 - June 2007, Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow, the Microsoft Corp, Reston, Va.

14. June 2007 - June 2009, Director, Emerging Capabilities Division, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics), Washington, D.C.

15. July 2009 - March 2010, Senior Program Analyst, Irregular Warfare Division, Office of the Director, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, Washington, D.C.

16. March 2010 - June 2011, Commander, 27th Special Operations Group, Cannon AFB, N.M.

17. June 2011 – July 2013, Commander, 1st Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, Fla.

18. July 2013 – November 2013, Special Assistant to the AFSOC Commander, MacDill AFB, Fla.

19. November 2013 – May 2014, Deputy Director, Special Plans Working Group, U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, Fla.

20. May 2014 – August 2015, Vice Director, Strategy, Plans and Policy, U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, Fla.

21. August 2015 – June 2017, Chief of Staff, U.N. Command and U.S. Forces Korea, Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, South Korea

22. June 2017 – June 2018, Chief of Staff, Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

23. July 2018 – present, Vice Commander, Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, Washington, DC

 

SUMMARY OF JOINT ASSIGNMENTS

1. December 2003 – March 2004, Commander, Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-Arabian Peninsula, as a lieutenant colonel

2. October 2004 – February 2005, Commander, Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-Arabian Peninsula, as a lieutenant colonel

3. June 2007 - June 2009, Director, Emerging Capabilities Division, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics), Washington, D.C., as a colonel

4. July 2009 - March 2010, Senior Program Analyst, Irregular Warfare Division, Office of the Director, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, Washington, D.C., as a colonel

5. March 2011 – May 2011, Commander, Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-Afghanistan, as a colonel

6. November 2013 – May 2014, Deputy Director, Special Plans Working Group, U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, Fla., as a brigadier general

7. May 2014 – August 2015, Vice Director, Strategy, Plans and Policy, U.S. Central Command, MacDill AFB, Fla., as a brigadier general

8. August 2015 – 2017, Chief of Staff, U.N. Command and U.S. Forces Korea, Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, South Korea, as a major general

9. June 2017 – June 2018, Chief of Staff, Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., as a major general

10. July 2018 – Present, Vice Commander, Headquarters, U.S. Special Operations Command, Washington, DC, as a lieutenant general

 

 

EFFECTIVE DATES OF PROMOTION 

Second Lieutenant June 9, 1989 

First Lieutenant October 20, 1991 

Captain October 20, 1993 

Major July1, 1999 

Lieutenant Colonel March 2002 

Colonel March 1, 2006 

Brigadier General July 12, 2013 

Major General May 2, 2016

Lieutenant General June 29, 2018

 

(Current as of July 2018) 

 

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