Photo courtesy of Tariq Dahdal
Mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher (center) served as a Marine sergeant during the Iraq war in 2004.
Night had fallen during one of Marine Sgt. Nathan Fletcher’s last days in Iraq and it was time to say goodbye. Fletcher had spent seven months working counterintelligence in the Sunni Triangle through one of the war’s worst periods. He patrolled through the alleys and roads in towns and villages, interviewing Iraqis and detailing threats to the United States and its allies.
Now Fletcher’s tour was ending and he had to tell one of his most trusted sources that he was going home. The old man wore a long, white flowing robe. He spoke to Fletcher through an Arabic translator in a safe house near the man’s village.
Another Marine, Lou Orozco, stood within earshot. He couldn’t follow the conversation between Fletcher, the translator and the old man. But Orozco noticed that by the end the old man had tears in his eyes. Then, just as he and Fletcher were ready to go, something happened that Orozco had never seen an old Iraqi man do to an American Marine in full combat gear.
“The sonofabitch hugged him,” Orozco said.
This hug happened seven years ago. But Fletcher hasn’t forgotten the old man. He remembers his nickname, Ali. That insurgents killed Ali’s young daughter. The sadness Fletcher felt from knowing he and Ali would likely never talk again.
These kind of relationships defined Fletcher’s service in the Marines, interviews with military colleagues and a review of his official records show. And now, as Fletcher seeks to take the quick leap from sophomore assemblyman to mayor of San Diego, he’s intertwined his military and political identities to the point they’ve become indistinguishable.
During the decade Fletcher spent as a Marine reservist, he plotted his future in politics. Since he left the Marines more than four years ago, the 34-year-old Republican has used his military service as the foundation of his stump speech and answer to questions about his lack of experience.
But even more significant, Fletcher’s time in the Marines allowed him to hone the same conciliatory tone he’s used while in office. In politics, his approach has allowed him to win over San Diego’s police union, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly and the parents of a murdered Poway teenager. In the Marines, it allowed him to turn potential adversaries, from war-weary Iraqi fathers to African tribesmen, into trusted sources.
“He could see the human side of them even though they were the enemy,” said Thomas Montero, Fletcher’s commanding officer in Iraq.
Fletcher and Montero walked with their translator down a wide, main street in an Iraqi town near Falluja. The street housed the town’s market, which consisted mostly of junk shops made out of cinderblock. Fletcher and the two other Marines had to pass through the market before ending their patrol.
A middle-aged local emerged near one of the shops and began yelling at the Marines about their presence on Iraqi soil. This kind of heckling happened often enough, but for whatever reason, this time the man’s words struck a nerve with the translator.
Fletcher heard the man, saw the translator’s agitation and stopped. Fletcher and the translator walked up to ask what was wrong. And he tried to convince the man that he didn’t want to be in Iraq just as much as the man didn’t want him there.
“I remember telling him,” Fletcher said in an interview, “that as much as I love the lamb, I want to leave.”
Within five minutes, Fletcher had calmed his translator and the Iraqi man. They ended their conversation with a handshake.
The exchange didn’t appear in one of Montero’s glowing write-ups of Fletcher’s performance, but he said these kinds of interactions defined Fletcher more than anything else.
“We’re supposed to put on paper the facts,” Montero said. “But in between the lines, there’s another story. There’s the story of him being compassionate and focused. Calm in stormy seas. Being able to reach deep down on an emotional level the person who he’s talking to and fully comprehend what that person is trying to tell him.”
Montero and others in the unit said Fletcher always was the Marine who had candy to pass out to Iraqi children, the one who would take off his helmet and sunglasses and kneel down to look people in the eye.
Fletcher served in Iraq from February to September 2004, an especially violent period. The insurgency was growing stronger and perfecting its use of roadside bombs. More than 550 U.S. and coalition troops lost their lives in the months Fletcher served, the war’s worst seven-month stretch to that point. Fletcher and three other Marines fought off direct fire from a series of insurgent ambushes on a day just before Easter. He later received an achievement medal with combat valor for his “ferocious and sustained” response to the ambushes, an award summary said.
Less than two years later, Fletcher volunteered for a second tour overseas.
The Marines sent him to the Horn of Africa. He spent seven months near the borders of Somalia, mainly patrolling the tribal regions of Ethiopia. There, as one colleague called it, Fletcher’s mission was more about “waging peace” than war. He helped find safe places to dig wells and figure out which schools needed supplies. Still, that assignment had its own dangers. Fletcher once had to talk his way out of a situation where as many as 70 AK-47-wielding ethnic Somalis surprised his small team on a mission in eastern Ethiopia.
Fletcher often found himself assigned to the remotest of places. “Just as barren as you could imagine,” said Gary Hawald, Fletcher’s commanding officer in Africa. Hawald sent Fletcher to isolated areas on purpose. People in the tribes connected with Fletcher, Hawald said, even when they didn’t trust anyone else.
“By breaking it down more personal,” Hawald said, “I think that they started thinking, ‘Well I don’t know if I like the Marine Corps, I don’t like the U.S., I don’t like the Ethiopians, but I’m OK with Nathan.’”
Fletcher returned from Africa in late 2006. By then he was a staff sergeant. The Marines offered to make him a warrant officer, a promotion granted to enlisted troops based on their service record. But Fletcher declined the job and left the Marines.
He had decided instead to run for office.
Dressed in a dark suit and striped blue tie, Fletcher took the microphone in a large room at Clairemont High School. He was there to address the Clairemont Town Council, one of the many neighborhood groups mayoral candidates have to speak with these days.
Fletcher began an 18-minute stump speech peppered with stories and lessons from his time in the military. He first came to San Diego because of the Marines. “Like so many of us, I was welcomed to our city by a screaming drill instructor just inches from my face,” he said. He said the military taught him that politicians don’t have crises. Real crises, he told the crowd, are enemy mortars, Humvees on fire, soldiers wounded or dead.
He spoke about returning from his eastern African deployment intent on going to Afghanistan. His wife, Mindy, nixed the idea and told him to get out of the military.
“She said, ‘Find some other way to serve,’” Fletcher said. “I still wanted to make a difference. I wanted to tackle tough problems. I wanted to work to improve people’s lives. I said I’ll run for the Legislature.”
Fletcher’s anecdote implies that he didn’t want to become a politician until he left the military. That’s not true. Fletcher had planned to run for office long before then.
He majored in political science at California Baptist University and signed up as a Marine reservist during college. He said he had always wanted to join the military and almost attended the Naval Academy out of high school. He liked the commercial where a sword-wielding Marine slays a dragon.
Except for his time in the Marines, Fletcher’s work experience is nearly all politics. He worked for a Republican political action committee, the state Republican Party and ran former U.S. Congressman Duke Cunningham’s San Diego office. (Fletcher left Cunningham’s office four months before the corruption scandal blew up, and Fletcher has said he had no knowledge of the congressman’s wrongdoing.) Before he deployed to Africa, Fletcher filed papers to run for the assembly, but held off when the incumbent ran for re-election.
Jeremy Passut, an Army captain who met Fletcher at a three-week airborne school in late 2006, said they talked politics all the time. Fletcher, he said, was laying the groundwork in his head for political plans two to three years down the road.
“Was it dreams of grandeur?” Passut said. “At the time, I was like, ‘That sounds great.’ And next thing you know, I’ll be damned, the S.O.B. is doing it.”
When Fletcher officially decided to run, those he served with were there for him. Half of Fletcher’s 11-member counterintelligence unit from Iraq donated to his first campaign.
The Marines said they had only a general understanding of Fletcher’s political beliefs. Instead, they said they gave him money because they supported him as a person.
“Nathan’s the kind of guy that knows where he comes from,” said Kevin Cherry, a Marine who was with Fletcher in Iraq and eastern Africa and donated $600 to his first assembly campaign. “He never forgets that. The people he served with and his family come first.”
The invitation came to Brian Marvel, the head of San Diego’s police union, and Brian Marvel only. Fletcher could take one person with him to Gov. Jerry Brown’s January swearing-in ceremony in Sacramento, and Marvel was his choice.
“He said, ‘Hey man, I got one seat. Do you want to come up?’” Marvel recalled. “I said, ‘Heck yeah, I’ll come up for that.’”
Fletcher already had spent much of the last year building a relationship with Marvel. They bonded over war stories. Marvel, a Navy veteran, had trained police recruits in Falluja during the months after Fletcher was there. They bonded over police stories. Fletcher’s dad had worked as a cop, too. They bonded over business. When the police were looking for a sponsor for healthcare legislation last year, Fletcher volunteered.
In October, the police union endorsed Fletcher for mayor. The endorsement came even though Fletcher supports a pension reform initiative the union strongly opposes. Even though the experienced law-and-order district attorney also running for mayor had asked the union to stay neutral. Even though the Democratic mayoral candidate promised to fight the pension measure.
When he announced the endorsement, Marvel said the union believed it could work with Fletcher even when they disagreed.
Fletcher has sold himself as someone who’s willing to cross the aisle to get things done. It has emerged as a constant message in his campaign. As much as anything else, the theme relies on Fletcher’s approach to politics, one that Fletcher sharpened during his military service. Fletcher said he doesn’t see his political opponents, such as Democratic Assembly Speaker John Pérez, as enemies.
“I mean, c’mon,” Fletcher said. “The speaker of the assembly is one of my closest friends. We have dinner together. He’s not the enemy. We just disagree.”
Fletcher’s emphasis on making personal connections began before he started using his skills to develop Iraqi and African intelligence sources.
Orozco, a Marine who served in Iraq with Fletcher, also was with him during counterintelligence training a year prior. Orozco recalls Fletcher telling him he would say someone’s name three times in a sentence the first time he met them. Fletcher told Orozco it would help him remember the name the next time they met.
“It’s meaningful when you meet someone and they come back and they remember your name,” Fletcher said.
One name in particular stands out in Fletcher’s political resume: Chelsea.
In early 2010, Poway teenager Chelsea King went missing and was eventually found murdered by a registered sex offender. In the aftermath, Fletcher connected with King’s parents, Brent and Kelly, and sponsored “Chelsea’s Law,” an overhaul of the state’s sex crimes laws that passed later that year.
Two months ago, the Kings endorsed Fletcher for mayor.
The Kings met Fletcher through a mutual friend, they said in an interview after their endorsement. They had never sat across the table from a politician prior to talking with Fletcher. Before they decided to put their daughter’s name in Fletcher’s hands, they asked questions. Why did he want to be involved? Why did he go into politics? If this didn’t work, would he still be there?
They trusted Fletcher, they said, because he listened. Because he looked them in the eye. Because they believed he answered their questions honestly.
“This was our child, our most precious daughter,” Kelly King said. “You have as a parent, I think, an innate response in the way that you read someone when it’s your child’s life that’s been taken. I don’t know that I would have had that in any other situation. It’s almost like a seventh sense about you. Because you’re doing everything that you can to protect everything that you’ve got and guard it. With Nathan, it was just something that we knew.”
The Kings have moved away from San Diego. Brent King said he remains in contact with Fletcher at least once a week. They discovered they both love to talk about baseball.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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