Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave a moving and pointed tribute to the legacy of singer, songwriter and former enlisted sailor Bill Withers Thursday night at the annual "Lone Sailor" awards sponsored by the U.S. Navy Memorial.
In the virtual ceremony, Withers, who died in March at age 81, was honored posthumously with the "Lone Sailor" award. Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general and former commander of U.S. Central Command, was also honored with the award for his contributions to the sea services.
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Retired Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, president of the memorial, said that Withers, the three-time Grammy Award winner who recorded the timeless hits "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine," enlisted in the Navy at age 17 out of Slab Fork, West Virginia, and served for eight years as an aviation mechanic.
His widow, Marcia Withers, said her husband's Navy service "gave him discipline" and "a sense of pride he carried through life."
"During these troubled times, many have gravitated to Bill's music" for comfort and inspiration, she said, adding that he would have been honored "to be chosen alongside a man like Gen. Mattis."
In his recorded remarks accepting the award, Mattis took up a similar theme on the lasting impact of Withers' music for the current generation in an era marked by divisive turmoil.
He cited "Lean On Me" for its message of service to others and a cause greater than self emblematic of the sea services.
In a scathing June essay for The Atlantic, Mattis elaborated on his ongoing concerns: "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people -- does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us."
"We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort," Mattis said, in reference to the nationwide protests that sprang up after the May 25 death in Minneapolis of George Floyd.
In his tribute to Withers, Mattis never mentioned Trump, but instead quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons but perceivers of the terror of life and have manned themselves to face it."
"I wish that I had served alongside Bill Withers, because the manhood he demonstrated was not the childish egocentric example we see too often in today's news cycles," Mattis said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
Related: Navy Veteran, 'Lean on Me' Singer Bill Withers Dies at 81