“Be harder than petrified woodpecker lips,” Mattis tells USAF Academy graduates

COLORADO SPRINGS — Secretary of Defense James Mattis set aside his worries about Iraq, Syria, China and North Korea on Wednesday morning to shake the hand of all 984 graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy after he delivered a 12-minute speech at their commencement ceremony.

The secretary spoke about the warrior ethos he expects from the newly commissioned second lieutenants and how he needed them to have fierce character that will sustain them on the battlefield.

“We need you to be harder than petrified woodpecker lips,” Mattis said.

Mattis, a retired Marine general, is spending two days in Colorado’s Air Force town. On Thursday, he will attend a change of command ceremony for U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base where he will be joined by his counterparts in Mexico and Canada.

“What we’re seeing is a North American powerhouse developing,” he said about the relationship among the three countries.

After Wednesday’s graduation ceremony, Mattis spent 45 minutes with three newspapers, including The Denver Post, to talk about the new graduates, NorthComm’s mission, world affairs and military culture.

It’s Air Force Academy graduation day. These cadets weren’t sure how to respond to my joke about how useful newspapers were when I saw them spread underneath the birds.

Mattis said he has been pushing the Pentagon to look ahead of the wars it’s fighting and to figure out how to adapt to the changing character of war, whether it’s in outer space or cyber space.

“As we say in the Department of Defense, our enemies get a vote,” Mattis said.

The Pentagon is working on a position paper about integrating space into the national defense strategy, and Mattis said he has a team looking outward to define future problems. Colorado likely will have a role to play in space defense, thanks to its large aerospace economy — the second-largest in the country — and its military installations, including Peterson Air Force Base and Cheyenne Mountain Air Station. But Mattis wasn’t ready to talk about specific plans.

“We will have to continue to define the problem statement,” Mattis said. “You break the problem down into bite size pieces. You just don’t say we have to solve space.”

Mattis also discussed sexual assault and harassment in the military and today’s “Me, too” movement. Sexual assault has been a troubling issue at the Academy where the campus sexual assault prevention and response coordinator was fired last year, and the Pentagon ordered its inspector general to open an investigation into the office’s failures. The office had been created as a response to previous sexual assault scandals at the academy.

There is no room in the military for sexual misconduct of any kind, Mattis said. As a military commander, Mattis said he can accept casualties on battlefields, but he cannot accept casualties caused by the sexual assault of “one of our own.”

“This is a military effectiveness issue,” he said. “It will not be dismissed as a politically correct approach.”

“I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel,” former Indiana Rep. Charles Brownson said of the press. But we need your help to keep up with the rising cost of ink.

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