AUGUSTA — There’s much on the mind of James Mattis, the country’s secretary of defense.

In a recent speech before the Association of the U.S. Army, Mattis described some of the big issues that occupy his attention: terrorists in the Middle East, North Korean provocations in the Pacific Ocean, the growing challenges from cyberspace.

But Mattis, 67, a general retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, also gave nods to those who have confronted the big issues of past generations. He specifically spoke about one of Maine’s own: Richard Lincoln, of Wayne, a 91-year-old combat veteran who served on the front lines during the U.S. Army’s Italian campaign in World War II.

“Mr. Lincoln served as a first scout in the 88th Infantry Division in the battle of Anzio, which, as you all know, was a grueling and historically important amphibious assault in the Italian campaign, an amphibious landing against long odds which permitted the Allied capture of Rome,” Mattis said, according to a copy of his remarks on the Department of Defense website. “He repeatedly risked his life on the front lines to identify enemy artillery batteries, regularly enduring enemy fire and never shrinking from enormous dangers.”

Mattis also hand-wrote two notes that were presented to Lincoln on Saturday at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Augusta, a long-term care center where he now lives. One of the notes was in a letter from Mattis. The other was in a book about the battle of Anzio, which was inscribed by Mattis and others, including former U.S. Sen and Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who is from Maine.

Those honors joined several others that Lincoln has received over the years, including a Bronze Star in 2004 and a certificate from the Italian province of Pisa several years earlier.

“All the stuff I see on Iraq on TV brings back memories of searching towns and crouching in crevices,” Lincoln told the Kennebec Journal in 2004, at the age of 78. “It was just slugging it out. It’s a tough life being an infantryman. A sharpshooter could bump you off.”

In that interview, Lincoln recalled wedging dog tags into the teeth of dead soldiers to make sure they could be identified at the morgue, and marching through the center of Rome on his 18th birthday. He showed off a scar on his thumb from the time he jumped into a culvert to avoid strafing from planes.

On Saturday, dressed in a sport coat, trousers and a red plaid bow tie and seated in a wheelchair with a tall back, the 5-foot-5 Lincoln shook hands and received hugs from well-wishing visitors. His wife, Nan, 84, and daughter Elaine greeted the more than three dozen friends who came to watch the presentation and see a video clip of Mattis’s remarks.

Among them was Doug Stevenson, who lives on the same road in Wayne as the Lincoln family. “Rich marched in 58 consecutive Memorial Day parades,” Stevenson said. “And he would not accept a ride. He marched.”

However, Lincoln was unable to make it this year. In April, he suffered a stroke that affected his left side, and he moved to the Maine Veterans’ Home, his daughter said.

Those close to Lincoln say that the honor from Mattis was a nice surprise.

“I’ve never seen a defense secretary pen a letter by hand to someone,” said Robert “Bobby” Charles, another Wayne native, who helped present the items to Lincoln on Saturday. “Honestly, it blew me away.”

Charles, a Navy veteran, served as an assistant secretary of state under former Secretary of State Colin Powell and had something to do with the honors recently bestowed on Lincoln.

He lives in the Washington, D.C., area now but regularly returns to Wayne and tries to keep in touch with the local veterans. He was speaking with Lincoln last summer, he recalled last week, when Lincoln seemed to drop his guard and describe at length his service in World War II.

“All of this was remarkable to me,” he said. “It was remarkable to understand that he had done this. He doesn’t present himself as a war hero, and he presents himself as a humble person and a cheerful person. To learn that he had gone through all of this in his youth.”

Charles told the audience that based on the losses suffered by the Blue Devils of the mostly draftee 88th, he calculated that Lincoln had a 1-in-5 chance of making it home from the war.

After the presentation — including a description of the battles in Italy — Lincoln said, “If they only knew the whole story, it would even be more impressive.”

Charles and members of Lincoln’s family prepared the event held Saturday as a way to honor the veteran, even before they knew of the recognition from the current secretary of defense. Charles contacted members of Cohen’s staff to see if he’d be able to write a note honoring Lincoln. Then he learned that Cohen had found a book on the battle of Anzio and had it inscribed by Mattis, as well as two other generals.

Lincoln’s daughter, Elaine Lincoln, said before the event that she hoped her father’s story would help younger generations appreciate the experiences of people like him.

She urged people to “take the time to ask the right questions. There are probably other Richard Lincolns whose stories would be interesting. We might be astounded.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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