U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis challenged Tri-Citians to maintain their sense of unity and respect for the ongoing American experiment when he spoke Thursday night in Kennewick.
Mattis, the nation's 26th secretary of defense, gave the keynote address for the 46th annual Tri-Citian of the Year event, honoring a citizen for service above self.
The Richland native and retired Marine Corps general returned frequently to the idea that America is at its best when it comes together to address shared challenges.
"Every person can represent the best of America's fundamental unity, if we choose," he said.
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He peppered his speech with observations and anecdotes about America's role in the world and he defied critics to find another nation that spends more energy looking itself in the mirror.
"If you have been brought up to think America is not the greatest place, then you have been given the wrong understanding," he said.
The power to inspire was highlighted in a striking encounter Mattis had with a prisoner in 2004 in the Al Ambar Province in the Ephrates River Valley. Then a two-star general, Mattis was commanding the First Marine Division.
One morning, an aide asked if he wanted to meet the man who had tried to kill him and his troops, noting he was an engineer who spoke English. "That hits a little close to home," Mattis joked.
Mattis said he welcomed the prisoner and ordered is handcuffs removed.
He asked the man, a Sunni, why he was attacking Marines, saying the sides were friendly. The prisoner complained about "Jews and Americans" stealing oil. Mattis told him he wasn't interested in listening to nonsense from an obviously educated man.
The prisoner paused and asked for a cigarette. He was shaking so badly Mattis had to light it for him.
"I don't like foreign soldiers on my soil," he finally said. Mattis sympathized. He wouldn't want that in Richland, he told the Tri-City audience.
The prisoner, on learning he would be spending the next few years at Abu Ghraib prison, stunned Mattis with his next question.
"General, do you think if I’m a model prisoner, that some day I could emigrate to America?"
Just think about that, Mattis said.
"He would love to be sitting with you tonight," he said. "Each of us has that power to inspire, to follow what Lincoln called our better angels."
On Thursday, Rotary International and Kiwanis International chose local builder Don Pratt for as the Tri-Citians of the Year, honoring him for his long and diverse service to the Tri-Cities and beyond.
Mattis said those organizations and the man they chose to honor embody a spirit that epitomizes America's power to inspire and intimidate.
"I appreciate the inclusiveness of your clubs," he told the audience of about 900 at the convention center.
Mattis even shared in Pratt's famous avoidance of the spotlight when he corrected his own impressive title.
"I am secretary of your defense," he said. "I work for you."
Some Tri-Citians will have a second opportunity to hear from Mattis at a sold-out Saturday event sponsored by Columbia Basin Veterans Opportunity Center and Columbia Basin College VETS.