Secretary of Defense James Mattis comes home to give local docto - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Secretary of Defense James Mattis comes home to give local doctor a medal

Posted: Updated:

RICHLAND, WA - A very special visitor stops by his hometown for a very special award. The Department of Defense Medal of Distinguished Public Service is given out by the Secretary of Defense who, of course, is Richland native, James Mattis. He gave that award to Dr. Lewis Zirkle. 

Dr. Zirkle started SIGN Fracture Care International back in 1999. His work has helped treat hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries all over the world. Now, he's being recognized for that. 

"Being here in Richland, Washington, my hometown, and not being in Washington, DC," joked Secretary Mattis. "I stand before you right now with mixed emotions. I'm so happy I could cry I'm not in Washington, D.C."

Mattis may have stolen the show with his relatable sense of humor and crew of secret service - but the honoree, Dr. Zirkle, had a few one-liners of his own.

"We have over 300 programs and these surgeons, in my opinion and I'm prejudice, are the best in the world," said Dr. Zirkle. "Except for the military surgeons of the United States. Especially the Marines."

"I've driven by SIGN Fracture before and at one point I thought it did make signs," said Secretary Mattis. "Another time I thought it was a physical therapy place and so I thought maybe one of these days I'll need that too, you know. But I had no idea that hundreds of thousands of people and probably millions by extension had been affected, that we've got over 5,000 surgeons that owe their capabilities to what goes on here and the leadership of the doctor."

Now, he knows and it's all thanks to a single email written one early morning by a long-time SIGN employee.

"After input and approval and a lot of prayer I hit the send button," said SIGN CEO Jeanne Dillner. "To my astonishment and delight the Secretary of Defense took a break from saving the US from certain mass destruction and responded within five minutes."

Secretary Mattis eventually made his way to SIGN describing Dr. Zirkle as a soldier, doctor, fellow northwesterner and a home run of a human being. He awarded him the Department of Defense Medal of Distinguished Public Service.

"I just have to say, Dr. Zirkle, that you're a part of the inspiration," said Secretary Mattis. "You're part of the reason America will stay a great country because you prove we're a very, very good country. We're obviously proud in the Department of Defense, too, to say that your unfailing sense of kindness and purpose grew out of the traumas of war."

"We're very compatible. We have essentially the same ideas. He could be a SIGN surgeon," said Dr. Zirkle with a laugh. "That's the best compliment I could give anybody."

The buffet breakfast for guests included, of course, Spudnuts. 

If you'd like more information on Dr. Zirkle and the work done by SIGN -- CLICK HERE