Mattis nixes holiday tradition of seeing troops in war zones

WASHINGTON (AP) — For only the second time since 9/11, America’s defense secretary didn’t visit U.S. troops in a war zone during December, breaking a long-standing tradition of personally and publicly thanking service members in combat who are separated from their families during the holiday season.

Pentagon boss Jim Mattis, who spent more than four decades in the Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, made a five-day trip through the Middle East in early December. He stopped in Kuwait and Pakistan — countries adjacent to Iraq and Afghanistan — but didn’t cross the borders to see troops at war in either country. Last week, he visited troops in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at military bases in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina, wishing them holiday cheer.

It has been 15 years since a U.S. defense chief didn’t travel to a war zone during the festive season. And the only time a holiday visit was skipped since Americans began fighting in Afghanistan was in December 2002. That year, then-Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to a command post in Qatar that would be used a few months later to coordinate the launch of the Iraq war.

Asked recently why he wasn’t going to Iraq or Afghanistan, Mattis said he didn’t want to discuss his travel. “I carry out my duties to the best of my ability,” said Mattis, who visited Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year.

Dana White, his chief spokeswoman, said the secretary “wanted the troops to enjoy their holiday uninterrupted. He is keenly aware of the logistical challenges of a senior leader visit, especially in a war zone.”

Defense secretary trips historically have been aimed at boosting troop morale, letting service members know that senior leaders and the U.S. public recognize their sacrifice. And generals who have chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff have routinely done their own December trips to war zones, taking celebrities on their flights as part of a USO entertainment tour.

It is less of a tradition for U.S. presidents to make December visits to conflict zones. Such trips require much greater logistical and security planning.