JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Though he never served in the U.S. military, Ike Skelton became one of its strongest assets.
The former Missouri congressman was being remembered Tuesday for a 34-year career in Congress that spanned a dozen military conflicts, and for taking pride in fighting for better training, staffing, equipment, housing, salary and benefits for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. Skelton died Monday in a Virginia hospital at age 81 of what a funeral home in his Missouri hometown said were complications from pneumonia.
Growing up while young men only slightly older than him were fighting in World War II, Skelton longed to serve in the Army. But he was stricken by polio at age 14 and permanently lost the use of his left arm.
So he instead followed his father's path by becoming an attorney, though he also jumped into politics. Elected to the U.S. House in 1976, he built a reputation as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat _ but also as an astute military historian and one of the troops' staunchest advocates.
After redistricting made Skelton the representative for Fort Leonard Wood in 1983, the number of troops undergoing training there more than quadrupled and the post's mission expanded from the Army to all branches of military service. He also secured the future of Whiteman Air Force Base as it was losing its cache of long-range nuclear missiles in the late 1980s, by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there.
Fort Leonard Wood's commander, Maj. Gen. Leslie Smith, posted a Facebook tribute on Tuesday praising Skelton as "a true supporter for service members and veterans of our Armed Forces."
Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, the commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman, described Skelton as "a true patriot" who served with "wisdom, judgment and foresight that set him apart from his peers."
"We owe him a debt of gratitude for all that he has done for the people of Missouri and team Whiteman," Bussiere said in a written statement.
Skelton never lost an election until 2010, when he retired gracefully after losing his re-election bid.
Family members were still making plans Tuesday for a memorial service in Skelton's hometown of Lexington, a rural west-central Missouri town that was the site of a Civil War battlefield.
"He was really the soldiers' congressman," said Scott Charton, who worked with Skelton on his recently published memoir, "Achieve The Honorable." "And every time I see that B-2 bomber soaring like the Batplane over Missouri, I will think of Ike and his critical role in delivering that mission and so many others to his home state."
For 24 years, Skelton headlined the annual ROTC breakfast at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Two years after Skelton's political career ended, the breakfast ended as well, canceled because of declining attendance.
During what amounted to a political farewell speech at the November 2010 ROTC breakfast, Skelton rattled off more than a dozen accomplishments that he took pride in during his congressional career. Some were largely symbolic, such as the naming of an aircraft carrier after former President Harry Truman, a Missouri native and family friend. Others were quite substantive, such as efforts to increase the size and readiness of the Armed Forces.
But every highlight centered on the military.
"Leading the House Armed Services Committee as chairman has been the greatest honor of my public life," Skelton told the audience, many of them dressed in their military uniforms. He added: "For me, my work in Congress has truly been a labor of love."
Since his death, Skelton has been praised by numerous public officials _ from President Barack Obama on down the political ladder _ for his patriotism and devotion to the military.
As Skelton exited the public spotlights, he did so with concerns that the needs of the military would be overlooked in future budget battles and that Congress would become increasingly polarized with fewer moderates in either the Democratic or Republican parties.
"I feel that the incoming Congress in the United States will be challenged as seldom before to reach consensus on key legislation," Skelton said in 2010.
"As a nation, we need to constantly remind ourselves of those who go about their difficult duties of protecting us and keeping us safe," he added. "This should be uppermost in the mind of every American."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)