The senior member of the Missouri Congressional delegation bid farewell to the United States House, where he has served for the past 34 years.

West-Central Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton expressed gratitude to many during his farewell address delivered on the floor of the United States House Wednesday evening.

First, I am extremely grateful and appreciative to the residents Missouri’s Fourth Congressional District whose votes allowed me to serve as their representative in the U.S. House for 34 years. Representing the Fourth District in the House has been a tremendous privilege.

Skelton told colleagues he has lived a charmed life, though he learned early in life that things can change forever in an instant

After contracting polio, I was fortunate to receive treatment at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia. Polio affects each person differently, but all Warm Springs patients learned valuable lessons about life – never let illness define you, never be limited by the expectations of others, never give up, and never stop working. By applying the belief that nothing is impossible if you work hard, thousands of Warm Springs alumni, including myself, have led happy and productive lives.

Skelton first won election to Congress in 1976. He lost his bid for re-election November 2nd to Republican Vicky Hartzler. His term doesn’t officially end until the beginning of next year. Skelton said he leaves a Congress confronting daunting challenges.

When returning Members and new Members arrive at the Capitol for the new Congress in January, they will confront enormous challenges as they work to chart the course for our country in the days ahead. These challenges include the economy and jobs, health care, and education, to name a few. But I implore our citizens and our leaders not to forget that we are a nation at war. Unless our government protects our national security, none of these other important issues can receive the attention they deserve.

Skelton disclosed some of his anxiety for the future.

My greatest concern is that a chasm will develop between those who protect our freedoms and those who are being protected. I’ve often talked about what I perceive to be a civil-military gap, a lack of understanding between civilians and the military that has grown in the era of an all-volunteer force. For those not in uniform or connected to the military in some way, it’s easy not to relate to our service members’ difficulties as they deal with the trials of war and combat, multiple deployments, family separations, missed birthdays, and other sacrifices too numerous to mention.

As a nation, we must strive to narrow that gap and bring our citizens together. United we stand, divided we fall. The men and women in uniform who form the backbone of our security cannot devote their all to protect us if we fail to provide what they need to perform their missions, stay safe in the field, and take good care of themselves and their families at home. Keeping America safe demands a national commitment to maintain military readiness. During my time in Congress, the United States has been involved in 12 conflicts, some large and some small. If the future is anything like the past, conflicts, natural disasters, and other crises will frequently pop up without warning. Preparedness is essential.

Several colleagues came to the House floor to pay tribute to Skelton. Among them was southeast Missouri’s Jo Ann Emerson, whose late husband Bill was a close friend of Skelton

“You have been special for our country,” Emerson said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made note of Skelton’s devotion to members of the military as House Armed Services Committee Chairman.

“They had no greater champion in the Congress than the chairman of the Armed Services Committee,” Pelosi said on the House floor. “I know I speak for every person in this chamber when I say, ‘Mr. Skelton, thank you for your leadership for our country. It is an honor to call you colleague.’”

AUDIO: Congressman Skelton bids farewell to Congress [12 min MP3]

AUDIO: Speaker Pelosi, Congresswoman Emerson, Majority Leader Hoyer pay tribute to Skelton [11 min MP3]

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:20 MP3]