U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis once sat in the dirt with a man who'd attempted to kill him with a roadside bomb in Iraq.
"It had been a bad night for him," said Mattis to a crowd of roughly 1,100 people in downtown Spokane on Thursday night. "He was out there with his wheelbarrow. He had two artillery rounds, and he was out digging a hole, and next thing you know he looks up and there's five guys with automatic weapons standing around him, and they're not his."
"So he knew, at that point, his retirement plan was in jeopardy," Mattis said.
After talking with the man for a while, and learning he simply wanted foreign fighters out of his country, Mattis said they came to an understanding. And when they took him away, bound for a military prison, the fighter turned and asked Mattis a question.
"He said, 'General, do you think if I'm a model prisoner, someday my family and I could immigrate to America?' " Mattis said.
The former defense secretary's speech at an annual fundraiser for the free-market think tank Washington Policy Center avoided Mattis' reportedly tumultuous tenure in President Donald Trump's White House. To a group of local and national elected conservative officials, Mattis instead offered an optimistic view of America that he said would be well-served by preparing young people to make sacrifices for its preservation
"Right now, in America, 71% of our 18- to 24-year-olds cannot qualify to be a private in the U.S. Army, the baseline of service," Mattis said. "This needs all of our help, and all of our attention."
Mattis, now retired, also spent a good deal of his time congratulating retired Navy Adm. Thomas Hayward, who served as chief naval officer in the lean years following the Vietnam War and was given the policy center's Champion of Freedom Award at Thursday's event.
There were no direct references to Trump on Thursday night, as there were a week ago, when the Pullman native spoke at a charity fundraiser in New York City. There, Mattis jabbed Trump for his comments that the general was "overrated" after his departure from office in December and made reference to the president's love of fast food.
One of the event's sponsors was Stacey Cowles, publisher of The Spokesman-Review.
The only mention of the White House in Mattis' remarks Thursday came as a comment directed at fellow speaker Gov. Chris Christie. Mattis turned to the once Republican candidate for president and later head of Trump's transition team, and said the last time they'd seen each other had been at a Christmas party on Pennsylvania Avenue last year.
"You mentioned that we don't know what's going to happen in 2020," Mattis said, referring to a comment Christie made in a speech earlier in the evening about the upcoming midterm elections. "You and I didn't know, that night, what was going to happen four days later."
Christie, once a political foe of Trump who later served as head of the White House's commission on battling the opioid crisis, was the one to criticize the president for his decision to pull troops from Syria, a decision that Mattis has also questioned. But, Christie told the audience that paid $200 a plate for the affair, Trump had made that vow on the 2016 campaign trail.
"He said he was going to do it," Christie said. "Some people thought he didn't really mean it. Some people thought he didn't really understand it. Some people thought he'd never really do it. He did it."
"What people say in campaigns matters," continued Christie. "And people are dying in Syria, right now, in part because of that decision."
Christie also urged the crowd – financial supporters of a group that gives money to an organization that produces research in support of charter schools, opposes a state income tax and calls for public negotiations between local governments and labor unions – to watch what the Democrats are saying in public.
He said the current push for impeachment based "on a phone call" should be understood while Democrats are also calling for more open borders.
"These are the same people who want to impeach and remove a president based on a phone call, but want to say if you come across the border without permission, it's no longer a crime. But the phone call is," Christie said.
Many of the laughs were reserved for Christie, who's made a political name for himself with often self-deprecating humor.
But Mattis earned some of his own, including after U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse revealed to the general he'd be introducing legislation when Congress returns to Washington, D.C., awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal. Other recipients include George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and Douglas MacArthur.
Mattis thanked Newhouse, his member of Congress, for the honor.
"I'm not sure about your judgment," the general quipped. "But I admire your courage."
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