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Marines Say ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis May Temper Trump

Marines Say 'Mad Dog' Mattis May Temper Trump


Steve Walsh, reporter, KPBS News


As Donald Trump's nominee for defense secretary James Mattis undergoes scrutiny on Capitol Hill this week, many of the Marines he commanded from Camp Pendleton are rooting for him. Some say the retired Marine general they nicknamed “Mad Dog” may actually help ground the incoming president.

Clarke Lethin was in the Marine Corps from 1980 to 2008, ending his career as chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. Lethin said that contrary to President-elect Trump, "I don't think (Mattis) believes in torture." Trump said at one primary debate, “I’d bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Lethin said Mattis would disagree, noting that torture "doesn’t seem to have benefitted us all that much.”

Lethin was with Mattis in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Marines were tasked with setting up a camp for detainees.

“He set up a facility that was as good as we could for those detainees,” Lethin said, “abiding by the rules of the Geneva Conventions. In some cases they were living better than our Marines on the front lines.”

Mattis never married and he doesn’t have children. Among the people closest to him are the Marines who Mattis served with at different times over a 44-year military career.

Chris Weimer from San Diego was a young lance corporal in 2004 when Mattis led the 1st Marine Division in Fallujah, the sight of some of the deadliest battles of the Iraq War. Mattis spoke to Weimer’s battalion as it was finally leaving Iraq.

“You literally felt like he was thanking you, as an individual and as a Marine, for what you had done,” he said.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Clarke Lethin, former chief of staff at Camp Pendleton, now retired. He served with Mattis in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lethin concurred that Mattis has the common touch with personnel. Lethin was with Mattis in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has known the general since the two were at the same recruiting station in Oregon. The station was under-performing. Lethin said Mattis' first act was to get a map of the recruiters under his command.

“He left for five days. He went out and visited every Marine. He visited every recruiting station in Washington, Oregon and Idaho,” Lethin said.

Recruitment improved and that direct contact with those under his command became part of the way Mattis operated throughout his career, including in Afghanistan, Lethin said.

Lethin is now ‎managing director at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. He recalled how Mattis has let Lethin’s young sons borrow books from the thousands of volumes in his personal library.

“They’d come in sometimes and say, 'dad, look at this!' and there would be Jim’s notes along the side,” Lethin said.

But some oppose Mattis as the defense secretary nominee. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has said there are already "too many generals" in the Trump administration. Gillibrand serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering whether to waive the requirement that the secretary of defense must be out of the military for at least seven years. Mattis retired in 2013. So far, Gillibrand is the lone member of the committee who has said publicly that she opposes granting Mattis a waiver.

Mattis also faces questions over his disclosure to the Office of Government Ethics, which shows he has made millions since his retirement, mostly from paid speeches and consultant fees. Goldman Sachs and defense contractor Northup Grumman are on the list. He has resigned his seat on the board of directors of General Dynamics.

The Washington Post reports Mattis has already clashed behind the scenes with members of the Trump transition team after he wasn’t consulted about who would serve under him in the defense department. Lethin said he doesn’t expect the former head of Central Command to be a shrinking violet in the Trump administration.

“General Mattis is very transparent," Lethin said. "If he doesn’t like something, he’s going to make that known.”

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