The General of Our Generation
After a few months of being in the war-torn city of Ramadi, I was starting to get exhausted. I was outside in the blazing heat for large parts of the day, doing the more mundane tasks necessary to keep the Iraqi infantry battalion in the fight. Those tasks, that would have been conducted by units many multiples of our size. We were a few, just three logistics Marines trying to get the job done, out of a team of 11 Marines. I will spare you the sob story, but nevertheless my Cammies (tan desert camo uniform) were a mess. I sweated like a hog in heat, daily and hourly. They were a dark brown, permanently stained from the sweat, sand, and dirt.
Word had been passed that we were to be visited by some Marine Generals, little did I know that ‘Chaos’ was to be amongst them. We quickly assembled our best uniforms, mine was in a shit state, and made our way to the formation. All eleven of us waited until the massive security convoy pulled up to our compound.
In the fourth HMMWV, LtGen. Jim Mattis stepped out. His average height saying nothing to his gargantuan reputation as a warrior’s warrior. General Mattis’s reputation amongst Marines was legendary. Many to this day can recite his famous lines, and rattle off the random stories of his actions amongst the Marines that followed him. The often used saying “I’d follow him to hell and back” was not just a saying amongst the Marines that had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were the living proof.
General Mattis had led 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His ‘one pager’ of a letter to his Marines was well quoted through out the Marine Corps.
As Mattis came to our line-up of Marines, he began shaking each one of our hands, knowing my turn was coming up the nerves began to rattle through my body. What the hell would I say if he asked me a question about a weapon system or our defense. Damn. As Mattis came up to me he stopped, and looked at me from my dirty boots up to my soiled cover. He quietly asked my name and then proceeded down the line conversing with the rest of the Marines.
As he finished, Mattis began the tour of our combat outpost “Snake Pit” which we had inherited from 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines a few weeks earlier. ‘Snake Pit’ was a run down cluster of buildings, that Marines had fought out of since 2004. The turn over of ‘Snake Pit’ to the Iraqis was critical, and as the Marine Advisors to the Iraqi Soldiers, we sought to improve the Iraqi Soldiers lot.
As we reached the perimeter walls, Mattis asked “What was being done to counter the sniper threat” as my boss looked at me for a response, I told him “Sir we have ‘Sniper Screen’ on the way, a few days out.” My one response to Mattis, Couldn’t I have said anything better? Damn. For the rest of the few hours that Mattis was at ‘Sanke Pit’ we briefed him up on what we were doing, the struggles and challenges. His battlefield circulation had surely taken him across Iraq, and ‘Snake Pit’ was no different I am sure.
After returning ‘stateside’ at the end of our tour, our team dismantled and returned back to our parent units, an uneventful end to a tough 7 months in Iraq. Sitting in my office in the 22 Area, a large logistics center near Camp Pendleton Air Station, my thoughts drifted continuously back to Ramadi. My Company Commander, a Major whom I respected, sent an email notifying me of an all-officer all-hands Professional Military Education (PME) we were to attend at the Enlisted Club. The ‘E-Club’ was the largest facility, on the sprawling Marine Base at Camp Pendleton, that could handle such a large crowd.
Pulling into the parking lot, I was surprised to see the mass of Marines, unlike “Catfish Wednesdays,” a maintstay of the ‘E-Club,’ those who attended were treated to an incredible PME session. Hosted by General Mattis and Steven Pressfield, the writer and author of ‘Gates of Fire,’ spoke about his fictional writing that has gone on to be bestsellers.
Just after the hour long session, a rush of Marines crowded around General Mattis. The respect and admiration of the Marines in attendence was evident that afternoon. As Marines posed for photos, spoke to discuss the tactical and strategic, shook hands, or purely thanked the General for his leadership, all appeared to be around a long lost relative. Amongst the crowd were the grizzled veterans whom had served for him during the First Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and during the opening stages of Operation Enduring Freedom.
I stayed on the outskirts of the crowd, talking to Steven Pressfield, and after some deliberation I purchased a ‘hardback’ version of his renowned book, ‘Gates of Fire.’ As the crowd thinned I quickly moved in to talk to General Mattis, I explained who I was and where we had met. He quickly recalled the moment like it had happened a few hours ago, to my amazement.
The General signed my book that afternoon, a treasured keepsake from my first deployment. I relive the story often amongst Marines who both understand and can relate to the legendary General. I always found men like General Mattis, were at their very best with the men that they led.
General Mattis retired a few years ago, the apparent victim of political realities. The great thing about the Marine Corps is that we produce great leaders like Mattis continuously, ready to lead where the nation calls.
A final thought: General Mattis, capable of bridging age and rank to connect with HIS Marines. Semper Fidelis.