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Skelton, former military expert in U.S. Congress, dies at 81

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. congressman Ike Skelton, a 17-term Democrat who capped his career as chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, died on Monday, according to U.S. lawmakers. He was 81.

Skelton died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, with his wife Patty and his sons at his side, said Skelton's longtime colleague and staff member, Russell Orban.

Skelton had entered the hospital about a week ago with a cough, but grew weaker as other complications developed, said Orban, who was present when Skelton died.

"He was beloved and respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Ike was a devoted advocate for our men and women in uniform," President Barack Obama said in a statement.

Vice President Joe Biden said in a Twitter message Skelton had "absolute, total, thorough integrity."

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called Skelton "a selfless patriot who led with humility and put his country and constituents first."

In a statement, she said Skelton fought to bridge what he called "a chasm between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected."

Prodded into politics by Harry Truman, Skelton represented his largely rural, conservative district in Missouri for 34 years before being defeated in November 2010.

With a district that was home to Fort Leonard Wood, Whiteman Air Force Base and the Missouri National Guard Training Center, Skelton became chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 2007 after being the panel's senior Democrat since 1999.

While he voted for the resolution backing the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he criticized the administration of George W. Bush for stretching the military too thin and for not having a clear plan to end the war.

After a trip to Iraq in 2006 he cited the administration's lack of planning to deal with sectarian violence, failure to deploy enough troops and other policy shortcomings, and concluded, "We are now, I think, strategically lost."

In May 2007, he sponsored a provision in the defense spending bill requiring all U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by April 2008 that passed in the House but died in the Senate.

He also complained that the Bush administration was not paying enough attention to the war in Afghanistan.

Skelton had not faced a tight election since 1976, but his conservative district voted heavily for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

Skelton came from a family steeped in the military, although a bout of polio when he was a teenager made him ineligible for military service.

He attended a military academy, earned a law degree at the University of Missouri, and was a prosecuting attorney and a Missouri state senator.

His father was a friend of former President Harry Truman, who was born in the southern end of what became Skelton's district.

In 1962, Truman urged Skelton to run for Congress but he kept practicing law with his father. Skelton ran for the Missouri Senate in 1970, and for Congress in 1976.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who frequently testified before Skelton's committee, paid tribute to the congressman just after he left office in 2011 as "one of the great champions of our military."

"Chairman Skelton's questions were tough, they were pointed - but they were always fair," Gates said at the time.

Skelton was also "one of the architects of our national security apparatus" because of his work in drafting the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that ushered in a sweeping reorganization of the Department of Defense, Gates said.

Skelton had three sons with his late wife, Susie. He married Patricia Martin in 2009. One son served in the Army, another in the Navy, and the third, an entrepreneur, launched a company that made barbecue sauce.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Murphy in Kansas City; Writing by Vicki Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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