‘The Warrior Monk’

‘The Warrior Monk’

The legend of the Warrior Monk started 45 years ago when 18-year-old Jim Mattis signed up for the Marine’s Platoon Leaders Course, or PLC. He had often admired the challenge to excel offered by the Marine Corps. With typical humility, he now downplays the decision to join up.

“I don’t think I had the intention of making it a career at that point. I wasn’t closed-minded about it, but it was to go in, look around and do my time; in those days we had the draft, so there was little choice. And then look around and see what else was out there.”

But the decision was not as casual as he implies. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive had just killed 10,000 American soldiers and Marines, so the American military was aggressively seeking new blood to refill the ranks. Joining the Marines at the time, even with a temporary deferment as a full-time student, was a socially ostracizing and potentially fatal decision. After six weeks of training — as Jim Mattis was hearing around his college campus of Central Washington College — they put a rifle in your hands and send you to the front of the line, walking the point, on patrol looking for a gunfight in the booby-trapped jungles of Vietnam. And socially, he could forget about the free love, campus hippie chicks that occupied much of his brain space at the time.

Despite the social cost and potential danger, his commitment to the Marine Corps extended through the achievement of his master’s degree in history from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Particularly useful for a career in the Marines was his study of the recently translated Chinese general Sun-Tzu. The duality, the yin and yang of war in Sun-Tzu’s philosophy, coincided with Mattis’ deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of the natural world and human interaction. Sun-Tzu’s eastern philosophy of “winning hearts and minds” was a natural fit for Mattis and would serve him well in wars to come in the East.

On July 20, 1978, Capt. James Mattis took command of Kilo Company of the Third Marine Battalion of the Third Marine Division, or the 3/3, under the command of Col. Ken Jordan, a Vietnam veteran. His life was then out of classrooms and onto the rolling decks of warships. In September, he deployed as part of the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit, or MAU, on a “float” to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Okinawa and Korea. On this first deployment the Marines rescued hundreds of “boat people” — war refugees in overloaded, open fishing boats often floating aimlessly and out of fuel in the open sea.

This human aftermath of the U.S. military retreat from Vietnam and resulting political instability crowded every available inch of deck space around Mattis. They filled the sweaty hold of the ship, clutching their children and meager possessions, often shaking with fear and trauma. This was Mattis’ first real-world experience of war as a Marine. As soldiers of the Navy, the first in and often the last out of smaller, Third World conflicts, Marines frequently end up with the responsibility for evacuation of war victims. Compassion is a necessary part of an officer’s training and was put to the test as Mattis shared overheated sleeping spaces, food and few toilets, often for days on end, with successive swarms of desperate, frequently ill people who did not speak English.

Back in Haneohe, Hawaii, home base of the 3/3, a place literally crawling with lonely Marines, Mattis somehow found an attractive and unattached young lady we will call “Alice.” (Alice’s real name is being withheld as requested by friends of the Mattis family.) The relationship began slowly and remained unknown to most of his closest colleagues. Alice seemed to share a studious, reverential view of the world and had a deep appreciation for the sacrifices endured by Marines. Quietly, the two kindled a romance. As a young captain, comfortable in the simple, Spartan lifestyle of a Marine officer, Mattis turned to sweet, brown-haired Alice to lead him in matters of the heart.

On Aug. 4, 1980, Capt. Mattis assumed command of the relatively new configuration of a weapons company for the 3/3. Lt. David Pittelkow commanded a Dragon anti-armor squad under Capt. Mattis. While reviewing Pittelkow’s performance, Mattis noticed the young lieutenant giving orders to his men correctly but not pitching in quite as much with the physical work of setting up the heavy and dangerous equipment. He pulled his lieutenant aside and counseled him like a kind uncle on the shared work ethic of the Marine Corps: “Y’know Dave, the privilege of command is command. You don’t get a bigger tent.”

Mattis earned the following fitness report from his commanding officer, Col. Jordan: “Recommended for the Leftwich Award for outstanding leadership, Capt. Mattis exceeds all expectations for tactical knowledge, leadership ability and operational skill. A dedicated, hard-working, dependable officer, he was instrumental in assisting this BLT (Battalion Landing Team) to attain a score of 97 on the recent CRE (Combat Readiness Evaluation), the highest score in the brigade. His company consistently excels in quantifiable areas, and he sets the example for this men. He is intelligent, and expresses himself well verbally and in writing.”

Matters of the heart

Mattis was engaged to marry Alice.

The ceremony was set for late June to coincide with his return from scheduled extensive exercises of the 3/3 in the East. It was to be a quiet, private ceremony with close family and few friends. A few days before departure, Alice suddenly realized that as a Marine’s wife there would be frequent moves to different parts of the world and the constant threat of having officers knocking on her door one day in full dress uniform to deliver the worst possible news. As much as she respected the sacrifices that Marines make, she was not prepared to do the same. She insisted that Mattis resign, that he choose her or the Corps; he cannot have both.

Mattis frets over the decision but ultimately follows his heart. He agrees to resign his commission and begins the process. The upcoming float will be his last. Alarmed at the loss of such a rising star and well-liked leader, Mattis’ Marines launch a love offensive. They send their wives and fiancees to call and visit Alice, some meeting her for the first time, some with their men in tow to vouch for the realities of life with a Marine. The avalanche of support is overwhelming. Alice has deep misgivings but is reassured by the extended Marine family that surrounds her, pledging their love to her and her Jim, and to their family that may come. She finally relents with only hours left before the 3/3 ships out. The wedding is back on. Mattis trashes his resignation forms and, riding the rollercoaster of his emotions, packs his seabag for a long deployment.

Nothing stays private very long during months at sea in close quarters, so when they make landfall at various ports Mattis is repeatedly subjected to hair-raising bachelor parties. They are at sea this time for more than four months.

Back in Hawaii, preparations for the wedding proceed in the customary frenzy. As relatives from the mainland begin to arrive and caterers prepare, word comes to Mattis that all is again not well with the bride. His rise in fortune within the Marine Corps is not reflected outside of it. Alice has reconsidered. She simply can’t imagine their married life being anything other than an unhappy waiting game for her and so a burden to him and his career.

This time only a few truly close friends rush to the couple’s support. They beg Alice to reconsider, to be patient, to understand that Jim Mattis is worth the wait. The men tell her, truthfully, that he hasn’t looked at another woman since their engagement. Finally, Mattis and Alice have the talk. She is not swayed. Their engagement is off, the wedding is canceled.

On 28 July 1981, Capt. Mattis relinquishes command of 3/3 weapons company Kilo. He is promoted to the rank of major and leaves Hawaii to return home to the Pacific Northwest. He takes command of a quiet Marine recruiting office in Portland, Oregon, near the banks of the beloved Columbia River of his childhood. Like the first Marines who remained unmarried while in the Corps, he returns to the simple, monkish life of reading and fishing that he knew before Alice and the 3/3, even before the Marine Corps.

He will never marry. Instead, he will devote himself to his adopted family of Marines.

In his place

The legend of Secretary of State Jim Mattis is chock full of tales of heroism and victories on the battlefield, but the story that most reveals the man underneath the general’s stars takes place on a Christmas Day — after 40 years of leading young men and women into battle, always from the front lines.

Gen. Charles Krulak, commandant of the Marine Corps, every year, starting about a week before Christmas, baked hundreds of Christmas cookies with his wife. They packaged them in small bundles, and on Christmas Day, at about 4 a.m., Gen. Krulak drove himself to every Marine guard post in the Washington-Annapolis-Baltimore area to deliver the cookies to the Marines pulling guard duty that day.

This year at Quantico he arrived at the command center and gave a package to the lance corporal on duty.

He asked, “Who’s the officer of the day?”

The lance corporal said, “Sir, it’s Brigadier Gen. Mattis.”

And Gen. Krulak said, “No, no, no. I know who Gen. Mattis is. I mean, who’s the officer of the day today, Christmas Day?”

The lance corporal, feeling a little anxious, said, “Sir, it is Brig. Gen. Mattis.”

About that time, Gen. Krulak spots in the back room a cot, or a daybed. He said, “No, Lance Corporal. Who slept in that bed last night?”

The lance corporal answers, “Sir, it was Brigadier Gen. Mattis.”

Just then, Mattis came in, wearing a duty uniform with a sword, and Gen. Krulak said, “Jim, what are you doing here on Christmas Day? Why do you have duty?”

Mattis told Krulak that the young officer who was scheduled to have duty on Christmas Day had a family, and Mattis decided that it was better for the young officer to spend Christmas Day with his family. So he chose to have duty on Christmas Day in his place.

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30 thoughts on “‘The Warrior Monk’”

  1. That sounds just like the best example of an Officer that my father once told me about when I joined the Australian Army. His words to me when I was commissioned myself were: “Never ask a man to do a job you wouldn’t do yourself, and make sure you know your men as well as you know your own family!” I took those words to heart and still live by them nearly 30 years later. I know my dad once met Jim Mattis and found him to be the very best example of a soldier and an officer it had been his privilege to meet.

  2. “Alice” was the loser in this situation. I’m sorry for her, but General Mattis is too great an asset to this Country and our beloved Corps to have lost him. The General seems to be from the same mold as “Chesty” Puller. Semper fi.

    1. Agreed. My grandpa and father always taught me that respect is to be commanded, not demanded. Perhaps the best leadership advice I’ve ever received.

  3. Gen. Mattis is one Marine officer that I would follow into hell. He is a Marine’s Marine. In my 24 years of Marine life I have had the opportunity to help young officers along in their careers. Those that listened to experience made fine officers, those that didn’t…well Ya know how they turned out. And I mean “turned out”.Semper Fi to Gen. Mattis and may the lord guide him in his current duties to make America Great again.I noticed the misspellings but I as a Comm Chief can forgive because of the importance of this story.

  4. Gunny Yarbrough. Can we start here that where we now say Semper Fi we start saying Semper Fidelis, Always Faithful! Don’t you think it means more said that way!

    1. “SEMPER FI” means a lot to those of us who served (77-86) when the Marine Barracks in Beruit was bombed. That one Marine signaling for a pen and writing to President Reagan “SEMPER FI”….it’s a part of our Long glorious history. Fellow Marines young and old give me a Semper Fi Marine and I respond with a growling ooooh-rahhhhh.

    2. You can use the form any way you want. That is what is great about the Marine Corps. We still have freedom to express our meanings any way we deem fit. thank you sir for serving. SEMPER FIDELIS.

    3. I don’t believe that it would make any difference Semper Fi is just short it means the same I think it will always be used the short version that is and gunny I’m not disagreeing with you just my opinion Semper Fi

  5. What a great example of what a true Marine officer should be. We had an OIC in my outfit that never spoke to a single Marine below the rank of E-6. Always took the best C-rats and totally ignored the snuffies.

    1. I saw it both ways in Vietnam but the best ones pitched in right along side you. Lt Vanhorn took what ever C-rat was left. I will NEVER forget him. Would fill sand bags right along side you.

  6. My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting General Mattis on Sunday morning, August 27, 2017 as we were visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. The General was walking and as he passed my wife and I it struck both of us who this person was. The General was about fifteen feet beyond me when I said “Semper Fi Marine”. The General stopped in his tracks, turned and asked if I had served in the Corps. I responded that I did a very long time ago. The General then approached us shaking our hands and formally introduced himself to us. General Mattis is a true gentleman and an exemplary Marine. He was chosen to do a difficult job under very difficult circumstances. Semper Fi to all Marines.

  7. I never had the opportunity to meet General Mattis or serve under his command, but by all accounts, HE is a total class act and possibly the best asset that this country has in these troubled times in his position as SEC-DEF! He has set the finest example for all Marines to follow, and I will sleep well at night knowing that The General has our backs! Semper Fi to all of the Marines that have posted comments on this fine article.

  8. General Mattis is the type of Marine that most Marines wish they were, and dream of being some day. Semper Fi General Mattis,

  9. I’ve had the amazing Honor to meet, and become a very good friend with the General, on a whole different level. I am a Gold Star Mother. I was Blessed the day I met Jim ( which he insists I call him ), at the Marines Memorial Club, in San Francisco 2004′, shortly after my Son LCpl Travis Layfield was KIA in Iraq. We have remained Friends for all these yrs. now. I’ve seen him at many events, and I just beam with Pride to be in his presence. Yes, I so agree if anyone can help get this Country back in shape, it’s General ” Mad Dog ” Mattis. Thank You Marines, for your services, and sacrifices, to this Great Country. In My Sons name and Honor ” Semper Fi “

    1. Ma’am, So sorry for your loss, and Thank you for Travis’s service and ultimate sacrifice for this great country. May God’s love, wisdom,and peace comfort you and all parents who have lost sons and daughters protecting us. Semper Fi!

  10. I served in Nam with C/1/12, 3D Marine Division, 1968-1969. My last C.O. before rotating home was Capt. John Bateman. He too was a Marines Marine. He was a great C.O.. He is now guarding the gates of heaven. Semper Fi and God Bless all Marines.

  11. General Mattis, the Warrior Monk, illustrates a quote I read several years ago: “A Marine is trained for moments that demand uncommon valor and remembered for a lifetime of uncommon virtue.” Semper Fi to General Mattis and to every Marine who strives to uphold the Corps values of honor, courage, and commitment.

  12. A truly remarkable individual and an equally remarkable life story with many more pages yet to be filled. Semper Fi to General Mattis, Sec’y of State and Semper Fi to all Marines, past and present.

  13. CWO-5 Noble Callaway. Vietnam 1970 and Iraq 2005. At our 1st Marine Division Reunion this year in Norfolk VA Gen Mattis just happened to be in the area and he stopped by just to visit with us for over a hour. He commanded our division from 02 to 04. Semper Fi General.

  14. Outstanding story, the General certainly processed the Leadership Traits and Principles which influence others to follow as he lead his commands. Being an 0311 n 0369 in Nam it would have being an honor to serve under him. Semper Fi, Marine Brothers

  15. Wonderful story. Remarkable career General Mattis. You are a true patriot. I would follow you anywhere. General Matthis and all Marines “Semper Fi” . This includes the new Marines joining our ranks from MCRDPI, MCRDSD and Quantico OTC. We know you have the same honor, courage, and commitment that we have. “Welcome to our Corps”. “Once a Marine always a Marine”.

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