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General Dempsey and General Mattis

Image by D. Myles Cullen

Get to Know General Mattis: An Interview with His Protection Detail

By Stephen Crawford

General James Mattis has reportedly accepted his nomination for Secretary of Defense, and if confirmed would serve under President Donald Trump.

After he was nominated, having heard rumors about “Mad Dog” Mattis over the years, I called upon our best friend’s son, SSG John C. Steffens, US Army, to inquire more about Mattis; about his real disposition and personality. John worked closely with General Mattis for about a year as a member of Mattis’ “Executive Protection” detail, in the Protective Services Division (PSD). They spent a lot of time together.

So last night (December 1st, 2016), I went to see John, his wife Tadzia, and his three children – Little John, Joanne, and Emma. I was happy to have a chance to get some insights into General Mattis from someone who has spent a great deal of time around him. General Mattis had not yet accepted the nomination at the time of the interview.

The General is famously quoted as saying, “Demonstrate to the world there is ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.” Well, he may be “Mad Dog Mattis” to his enemies, but to those who know him, there is indeed no better friend. See below:

ME: John, you probably heard that Trump is thinking of appointing General Mattis to Secretary of Defense.

JOHN: Yes, that would be “SecDef” Mattis, [He laughs]. He calls me “Old Man.”

ME: So, you were his bodyguard?

JOHN: Yes. I was “Executive Protection.” I drove him on trips, overseas. Wherever he went, we went; even when he tried to sneak out. If he had to go someplace we’d make sure the path was clear and figure out how to get him there and all. We’d make sure all the time schedules were met, that the way was safe. He was a big target, his detail too.

ME: How was General Mattis politically?

He used to tell us about how much he disliked political gamesmanship. He didn’t like to talk politics. But he was, I’d say he was very conservative.

He didn’t own a TV. I was driving him one day and he says, “John.” “Who is Bret Baier.” I said, he’s a commentator on Fox News, he’s got his own show. He says, “Oh, OK.” I said, “Why’d you ask.” He says, “I guess he wants to do an interview with me.” This was around 2005. He had no idea – he didn’t follow politics at all.

Politically, he’s not very vocal, but he’s definitely a leader’s leader. He’s a firm believer in lead from the front. There were times when he would take people’s places. One of the stories we’d hear before he even got to us was when he was at Twenty-Nine Palms, he took over for a young Marine standing at the gate so that the Marine could spend time with his family on Christmas.

He’s a great orator. He knows exactly what he’s going to say before he says it. Excellent memory. He’s an avid reader of history. Start talking history with him and he will talk about it to no end.

ME: Did you have time to discuss things like that with him? To sit around and listen to him?

JOHN: Every once in a while, yeah. When I worked with him, we were close all the time. One of the things you have to do is listen to what’s being said in a conversation, but not listen to the conversation. There would be times when he would turn to one of us on the detail and ask, “So what do you think of that.” And you can’t say “I wasn’t listening,” because he expects there to be some response. And he was well known for bypassing all the senior leadership and going right to the junior guys, directly to the junior Marines, junior soldiers in my case, with “What do you think about this? What do you think about the situation?”

ME: He’d reach in and reach down, pull people in?

JOHN: Right. He valued everyone’s opinion. In fact, one time we were having a barbeque for the detail. It was right before I left, we had a lot of guys leaving at the time. So we decided we’d all get together, everyone from the staff down. Throw some chicken on the grill, burgers, hotdogs, pull all the cars out, with tables, everybody could come in, sit down, and have what they want. He was invited. And Little John and Joanne, my kids, were there. They were about 7 or 8 years old.

So General Mattis says to John, “I’m General Mattis. You can call me Jim.” John, says, “Hi.” General Mattis says to him, “You know, your Dad’s my boss.” And John says, “Well, no, you’re his boss, you’re the general.” And General Mattis says, “When your dad tells me to do something I don’t question him. If he says we’ve got to move, I’m going to move. If he says jump, I’m going to say how high.” And John says, “But you’re the general. You’ve got the stars.” John points to his stars, four of em there, and he says, “Well, these … I wear these for the ladies [laughs]. And John in his infinite youthful wisdom says, “That’s keeping it real, brother,” to General Mattis. He laughed.

He talked to Joanne for a few minutes. He knew about our extended families, our parents and what not. General Mattis asks about her grandfather on her mother’s side, who was also a Marine. General Mattis says to her, “You’ve got great genes.” He says, “Do you know what that means?” She says, “Well, it’s not the things I wear on my legs if you’re talking about it that way.” So, he’s easy to talk to.

ME: He sounds like a very personable guy.

JOHN: Yes. He’s not one of those senior military leaders who’s totally unapproachable. He’s got that mentality where if you feel the need to come and talk to him, he will make sure he’s got the time to talk to you. Anything you want to say. I’ve never seen him get angry at anybody. When he’s around it’s like that old commercial – when E.F. Hutton talks, everybody listens. That’s how he was. When he came in the room everybody always turned and looked. And he’d always have to say to go on and do what you’re doing. If you want to come and talk to me then come and talk to me. Don’t stop what you’re doing on my behalf. If you’re doing something important do what you need to do. If I come by and I’m bothering you, just tell me I’m bothering you and I’ll move on.

One of the things you see in a lot of senior leaders is they want things done their way, or no way at all. He’s very open. You could tell him, “Sir, this is what we need to do and this is why.” And if it conflicts with what he thinks needs to be done, he’d go into a discussion about it. He’s open to it – he’s not set on this is the way it’s going to be done; which I think is an outstanding quality. He was always fair with everybody. Really, never saw him get angry at anybody.

ME: What were the General’s favorite History subjects? Churchill? Other generals or battles?

JOHN: Military history, but everything from Thermopylae, the Art of War – Sun Tzu – not necessarily a practitioner, but in some of the way that he does some things. It’s like a modern twist on Sun Tzu. It’s not that we’re going to attack their weakest point to penetrate; it’s we’re going to attack their weakest point to create another weak point, and then we’re going to attack THAT. And then when they turn their force to that we’ll attack over here. He’d get them responding to him. He didn’t like to be reactive force. He wanted to be – this is where we’re going in and this is how we’re going to do it.

He’s big on military history. Anything that’s written in a history book he’s probably read it. During the first offensive in Fallujah in 2003, he used everything he learned, not only through regular warfare, but asymmetric warfare where you don’t have a defined opposing fighting force, small groups here and there.

Another story we heard, I can’t confirm this one, but the HBO Series Generation Kill — General Mattis was one of the leading roles in that. Before that came out, we heard stories about during the Fallujah offensive he’s up with a couple Marines, they’re in a firefight. He says, “What’s going on guys, what are we going after here.” Then, bing, bing [gunfire]  “Sir, you might want to get down, they’re shooting at us over there. He goes, “Well, alright, I’ll leave you guys alone to take care of those guys” [laughter].


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