Many agree that for the first time in years, the United States Department of Defense, which is responsible for oversight of the entire armed forces, is led by a man that the troops respect. James Mattis was not some political figure who never served and rose to prominence like former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; he was an officer in the United States Marine Corps, and was respected even then.
This week, Secretary of Defense Mattis turned 68 years old. He didn’t spend his birthday at some high-society event in Washington D.C., Martha’s Vineyard, or New York City, though, he spent the day in Afghanistan with the troops.
The legendary and beloved Marine turned Secretary of Defense made the trip on September 7, the day before his birthday.
The purpose of his visit was to meet with troops and commanders on the ground, in the nation’s capital, Kabul.
The Department of Defense announced that he would be making the trip on Twitter, as part of a larger DoD tour of countries in the region.
He was joined on this trip by the United States Army’s Command Sergeant Major John Troxell, as well as USMC General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Dunford.
During his time in Kabul, he spoke to his troops, and even signed memorabilia and flags for them.
The DOD’s twitter even featured a picture of him signing a flag for the door-gunner on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
Service, especially service in the military, means putting others first, whether that’s men on the wire or people back in the Continental U.S.
For too long, the position of Secretary of Defense has seemed to be a political stepping stone, or a place to park political allies willing to socially experiment.
When Barack Obama appointed Ash Carter to the role, his tenure was marked with constant claims that, in the interest of pushing forward the president’s agenda, he undermined standards.
According to numerous sources, in order to prove that Obama’s assertion that women could perform in combat roles was correct, Carter and his staff put pressure on elite schools, including the Army’s famed Ranger School, all hoping to pass women by any means necessary.
Jim Mattis provided the strongest contrast possible to that kind of leadership, and has shown that just because he switched his work uniform from the Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MARPAT patterned) to a finely-fitted suit, who he is hasn’t changed.
A story about Mattis from 1998, when he was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, claims that Mattis, then a Brigadier General (a one-star general, or O-7) stood duty for a Major (O-4) who had a family.
It was Christmas, and BG Mattis knew that his Major had a wife and kids at home, while he was a bachelor.
When the Commandant of the Marine Corps (at the time, General Charles Krulak, who now teaches at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland) inspected the duty station, he was impressed to encounter the officer in his duty uniform.
In 2003, Mattis commanded the 1st Marine Division as they were prepared to invade Iraq. Before his Marines crossed the border, every Marine received a letter written by then-Major General (O-8).
In the letter, titled ‘Commanding General’s Message to All Hands,’ he motivated his men, while he also reminded them to comport themselves as men from the proud military heritage of the USMC.
He told them that the “time had come” to end Saddam Husssein’s “reign of terror,” and that on their “young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.”
Mattis also admonished his troops to remember that their fight was not with the people of Iraq, who had suffered at the hands of the brutal dictator, nor with the members of the Iraqi military who surrendered before the might of the United States.
His letter ended with a final command to the men he was sending into harm’s way: an order to demonstrate to the world that there is “no better friend, no worse enemy” than a United States Marine.
James Mattis has spent 40 of his 68 years on this planet in service to the people of the United States of America. Though the way he treated the troops on his birthday seems out of place given recent appointees to the lofty role of Secretary of Defense, for Mattis it is just who he is.