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Mattis highlights diversity of US military in MLK speech

Mattis highlights diversity of US military in MLK speech
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday extolled the diversity of the U.S. military as an example for the nation at a ceremony to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

"It’s appropriate that my first chance to speak with a large group here at the Pentagon since taking the oath of office is to observe Martin Luther King Day with you," he said at the Pentagon. 

"Military service in America is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, and creeds. The men and women of the Department of Defense — military and civilian — reflect the diverse and selfless character of our national defense," he said. 

Mattis was sworn in Friday afternoon as Defense secretary. Later that evening, he sent out a message to members of the Defense Department that they showed the "fundamental unity of our country."  

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Mattis on Wednesday expanded on that theme with a vignette from U.S. military history. 

"As far back as November 1805, two young Army officers led a special unit, the Corps of Discovery, across the harsh landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

"They arrived at the Pacific Ocean and faced months of cold and deprivation before the snows melted and they would be able to return east. In this perilous situation, the unit was confronted with the choice of where to build a winter camp. The consequences of a bad decision could have been severe, and most likely fatal.

"Young Meriwether Lewis and William Clark put the matter of whether to cross the perilous mouth of the Columbia River to all hands. The unit included a slave named York and a Native American woman named Sacagawea.

"For the first time in the history of our Republic, among the members of this isolated patrol far from home, a black man, a Native American, white men and a woman voted as equals with everyone else.

"They voted to cross that terrible water – and the expedition survived the winter. They returned east to report back to Commander-in-Chief Thomas Jefferson. They accomplished their mission to find the best route to the Pacific, and it was an all-hands effort," he said. 

"Our Armed Forces are stronger today because of the perseverance of Dr. King and so many others in this country who have fought for Civil Rights and equality for all. And we can trace our roots back to an Army patrol in 1805 when we listened to our better angels. On this day of action, we are inspired to continue being a model for our Nation," he concluded.