During a series of visits before Christmas aimed at boosting morale in the military, Defense Secretary James Mattis sought to inspire troops by recounting an assassination attempt he survived during the Iraq War.

Mattis was accompanying a small group of Marines in Iraq when a Sunni Arab man was captured after attempting to plant a bomb on a nearby road. After being told that the captured insurgent spoke English, Mattis offered him a cigarette and coffee. The man then told Mattis that he resented the American soldiers being present in his country, and asked Mattis an unexpected question.

“General,” the insurgent said, “if I am a model prisoner do you think someday I could emigrate to America?”

For Mattis, the question represented America’s power to inspire, the Associated Press reported.

“I bring this up to you, my fine young sailors, because I want you to remember that on our worst day we’re still the best going, and we’re counting on you to take us to the next level,” he said. “We’ve never been satisfied with where America’s at. We’re always prone to looking at the bad things, the things that aren’t working right. That’s good. It’s healthy, so long as we then roll up our sleeves and work together, together, together, to make it better.”

During his visits with troops, Mattis shares anecdotes from his military experience to illustrate the uncertainty faced by soldiers on deployment and encourage readiness among them to fight at a moment’s notice.

When visiting Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Mattis told a story which demonstrated how quickly circumstances can change for the military.

During a June 2001 meeting at the Pentagon, Mattis said that senior members of the Bush administration questioned a briefer about significant security threats facing the military. According to the briefer, the one country where the U.S. would not be fighting was Afghanistan. Within a few months, Mattis found himself in southern Afghanistan, commanding Task Force 58.

Mattis also took time during his visits to remind troops how much they are valued.

“Our country needs you,” he told members of the military at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, saying that they were not just needed because of the military’s firepower. “It’s also the example you set for the country at a time it needs good role models; it needs to look at an organization that doesn’t care what gender you are, it doesn’t care what religion you are, it doesn’t care what ethnic group you are. It’s an organization that can work together.”

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