US defense secretary bucks tradition, foregoes visit to frontline troops
It has been 15 years since a US defense secretary did not visit troops in a war zone during the Christmas holiday season, Associated Press (AP) pointed out Friday. In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld skipped the trip to Afghanistan to visit US troops in Qatar, where they were preparing for the invasion of Iraq.
Mattis visited Kuwait and Pakistan during his Middle East tour earlier this month, but did not cross into Iraq or Afghanistan. Last week, he visited the base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and troops at bases in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Rumsfeld, who served under President George W. Bush, established the tradition of visiting the war zones when he flew into the Bagram air base in Afghanistan in December 2001. His successors Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter followed suit.
AP notes the secretary would meet and greet the troops, pose for photos, and hand out commemorative “challenge coins” to service members. Generals who chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff have also visited war zones in December, often accompanied by celebrities on USO entertainment tours.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford (USMC) visited both Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the USO tour this year. Vice President Mike Pence visited the troops in Afghanistan last week, bringing Christmas greetings from the White House. President Donald Trump had a video call with troops overseas on Christmas Eve.
President Trump left the White House to visit wounded warriors for Christmas. VP Pence is rallying the troops in Afghanistan.General Mattis is visiting soldiers in Guantanamo Bay. Damn it feels great to know we finally have men like this leading our nation!— Educating Liberals (@Education4Libs) December 22, 2017
Mattis, however, avoids large ceremonies with troops and prefers more private meetings with smaller groups. He has also declined to hand out “challenge coins.”
Asked by AP about his travel, Mattis declined to discuss it. “I carry out my duties to the best of my ability,” he said.
The secretary of defense has visited war zones before, however. He visited Iraq in February shortly after his confirmation. In September, during his visit to Afghanistan, both the Taliban and Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) claimed credit for an artillery attack on Bagram air base, where Mattis was staying.
Mattis, who served for almost 40 years in the US Marine Corps, fought in both Afghanistan and Iraq before retiring in 2013. His Cabinet appointment required a special waiver from Congress, as US law requires military officers to be retired for at least seven years before being eligible to head the Pentagon.