When news began circulating that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis will serve as our next secretary of defense, I had trouble hiding my excitement. I enlisted in 2008 when Mattis was a legend among Marines. There were countless stories about his devotion to the Marines under his command, the moral of each story was always that Mattis is a Marine’s Marine.
Which is why I was puzzled when I noticed the most un-Mattis photo ever making the rounds:
According to the caption accompanying this official Department of Defense photo, this image was shot at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam in Laghman province, Afghanistan. It was taken on Oct. 28, 2010. There’s Mattis, saluting in theater, without a cover, and wearing a backward SAPI plate carrier; all things that Marines do not do.
Looking at the photo, I remembered that in December 2011, Mattis visited Forward Operating Base White House in Helmand province, Afghanistan while I was deployed there as a public affairs combat correspondent attached to 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment.
So I looked through my old photos, and there he was again, more than a year later, and still with that same backward flak jacket.
Not only was it backward — which must have been a pain to put on because you need to open the front flap, now in the back, and secure the cummerbund to the Velcro underneath the flap — his two rifle and pistol magazine pouches were set up in reverse.
This is not written to be a dig at Mattis, who before leaving FOB White House had an aide give a bunch of junior enlisted Marines a case of hand-rolled cigars, under the condition we smoked them and sent him photos. We did.
Mattis’ genuine concern for junior service members is what elevated him to a living legend with an almost cult-like following in the Marines. Twice I’ve had the chance to meet Mattis and speak with him since I took these photos, and each time he reinforced the image I had as a young enlisted Marine: that he’s a leader who truly cares about those under his command.
It’s just interesting that the quintessential Marine’s Marine wears his flak jacket backward. Who knows, maybe there’s some specific standard operating procedure for the commander of United States Central Command, his post at the time these photos were taken. Perhaps it’s a matter of personal preference or comfort, or Mattis was just really busy and setting up his flak fell to someone else. Personally, I’m hoping it was a test to see if anyone had the guts to correct “Mad Dog” Mattis — nobody did.
Or maybe, the rest of the Marine Corps has just been wearing their flak jackets wrong this whole time.