Gen. James Mattis held court in the MacDill Air Force Base theater on one of the last days of his career, speaking to a group of more than 200 service members and civilians. He credited noncommissioned officers with showing him the ropes early on and warned that the U.S. can't be sure what armed conflict it will be engaged in next, but kept the mood light by mixing in some of his trademark wit.

Asked what worried him, the general motioned to the stars on his collar and offered a one-liner evoking the long shadow he casts. "I don't worry about stress," Mattis said, according to a Marine in the room for the March 8 all-hands meeting in Tampa. "I create it."

Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, takes questions after delivering a lecture to the London think tank Policy Exchange in London, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011.

Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/AP

Even if that quote is off by a word — media wasn't invited to the event — it's this combination of gruffness and humor that has helped make Mattis the most revered Marine general in at least a generation. Disagree? Name one other individual who is almost universally praised by everyone from lance corporals to his fellow four-stars. Name one other leader whose blunt speech has inspired tattoos, doting Web pages and tongue-in-cheek calls from admirers for a 2016 presidential campaign — one that probably would gain traction if Mattis had any interest.

Since 2010, the general known by the call sign "Chaos" has run U.S. Central Command, overseeing the war in Afghanistan and other military activity throughout the Middle East. On March 22, nearly 10 years to the day after he led 1st Marine Division during the ground invasion of Iraq, Mattis will be replaced by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin and retire. Thus ends one of the most dynamic careers for a general officer since the late Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller hung up his uniform in 1955.

Mattis doesn't like the attention. He has been cryptic about his future ever since word surfaced late last year that Austin had been selected to replace him. During testimony March 5 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he offered a typical response to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., who inquired about the general's retirement plans.

"I have no idea right now, senator," he said. "But it's going to be a lot of fun."

In a March 14 email to Marine Corps Times, Mattis said he prefers to end his 41-year career quietly.

"I've had some ‘riotous excursions of the human spirit' alongside the young Sailors and Marines and it's time to leave the stage to the young leaders who got their rank the old-fashioned way — they earned their stripes in combat," Mattis said. "The Corps is in good hands, and it's been a privilege to serve with the Leathernecks. Now it's time to go."

Battlefield success

Mattis will be remembered in no small part because of his Marines' battlefield success. He first became known nationally as a one-star in late 2001, when the order came from Washington to amass forces for an invasion of Afghanistan. At the time, he was leading forces through Bright Star, a multinational training exercise in Egypt.

With Mattis in charge, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., became the framework for Task Force 58, a larger Marine air-ground task force that also included the 26th MEU, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C. In the following weeks, Mattis oversaw the deepest insertion of Marines into a combat zone in U.S. history. More than 1,000 Marines were in Kandahar province within a week of the mission, which launched Nov. 25, 2001.

"The Marines have landed," Mattis said, according to embedded reports at the time, "and we now own a piece of Afghanistan."

The following year, Mattis prepared to lead 1st MARDIV into Iraq. In late 2002, he deployed with a staff of fewer than 100 to Kuwait and returned ahead of the March 20, 2003, push over the berm, said Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, then a lieutenant colonel working under the general.

Then-Col. Joseph F. Dunford, left,and Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis stop for a portrait prior to crossing the Line of Departure, an imaginary line to coordinate the beginning of the attack when they carry out the battle plan for war with Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo Credit: Gunnery Sgt. Matthew M. Smith/Marine Corps

Mattis pressed his planners to grasp the intricacies of a massive ground invasion, said Kennedy, now the director of the Division of Public Affairs at Marine Corps headquarters. Artillery, fuel and other requirements all would take up space in convoys that would span miles, Mattis stressed.

Before deploying, division staff conducted numerous rehearsal drills — some using Lego blocks to represent units — to assess challenges it would face. In Kuwait, Mattis had an area bulldozed and turned into a stadium-sized terrain model, said Col. Mike Groen, another lieutenant colonel and planner on Mattis' staff at the time. Rubber tubing served as roads and cinder blocks as cities. Inside, Marine officers navigated the labyrinth wearing jerseys to represent their units.

"He always was a week ahead of everyone else," said Groen, who is now the director of the Corps' strategic initiatives group and was recently selected for brigadier general. "He would tell you to do something, and you would scratch your head and say, ‘Hmm, I don't really understand why we're doing this.' Three, four, five days later, the light bulb would go off and you would say, ‘Holy smoke, this is what he was talking about!' "

Mattis also inspired his Marines with a one-page letter that summed up his commander's intent. Many kept it tucked away in their body armor, said Lt. Col. Joseph Plenzler, a captain in 2003 who served as Mattis' public affairs officer. The letter included an order that has become a catchphrase reprinted on bumper stickers, posters and T-shirts all over the country.

"Demonstrate to the world," Mattis said, "there is ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy' than a U.S. Marine."

Faith in his people

Mattis' popularity extends beyond his forces' success, however. For one, he emphatically showed faith in rank-and-file service members, stressing that they are key to military success. He's hardly alone in this regard — retired Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak developed the "strategic corporal" concept in the 1990s, among many examples — but Mattis' propensity for doing so resonates.

In one lesser-known instance in 2001, then-Brig. Gen. Mattis ordered Marines to keep their weapons in Condition 1 — magazine inserted, round in chamber — while deployed for exercise Bright Star, where tensions were high after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. He counseled a couple of Marines who didn't adhere to the order responsibly, but otherwise relied on the competency of his personnel, said Plenzler, now the spokesman for Commandant Gen. Jim Amos.

"It blew us away as young officers," Plenzler said. "There we were, sleeping with loaded pistols under your pillow."

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis declined a Military Times request to talk about the Iran nuclear deal.

Photo Credit: Staff

Mattis fearlessly traveled the Iraq battlefield in 2003 and 2004, relying on his "jump platoon" while getting into rolling firefights outside the wire, said Col. Brennan Byrne, who commanded Camp Pendleton's 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, in Iraq under Mattis. At times his unit took casualties, but he refused to stop checking on how his Marines were doing.

"He has imprinted an entire generation of Marines with regard to engaged, decisive combat leadership," said Brennan, now the chief of staff for 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade. "As Marines, we could never have been better served by his command."

Mattis' trust for his troops made its way into the U.S. military doctrine, as well. After becoming deputy commandant for combat development and integration, he co-wrote the counterinsurgency manual with now-retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who was then a three-star officer overseeing Army training.

Mattis' disciples argue to this day that Petraeus unfairly received too much credit for that work after adopting many of the principles in Iraq. Kennedy said the initial order Mattis wrote for 1st MARDIV in April 2003 was "Counterinsurgency 101," urging Marines to treat the Iraqi people with respect while watching out for their own safety.

"It is exactly what you see in the current counterinsurgency manual, and other people have been given credit for it," Kennedy said.

Mattis has deflected praise for his role in creating the manual, saying he had "at best an indirect, perhaps intellectual or training impact" on its adoption, while Petraeus later adopted it on the ground.

"We looked for what was working, accumulated it into the doctrine and passed it out, largely written by NCOs and officers fresh from their searing experiences in Iraq," Mattis said.

‘I didn't bring artillery …'

There are, of course, the "Mattis-isms." That is, the many salty, inspirational or otherwise eye-opening statements Mattis has uttered — in combat and in the U.S. — since becoming a senior officer. At times, they've earned him criticism from other senior officers, even as rank-and-file Marines cheer candor they say reflects the horrors of war.

Take that proclamation Mattis made after his Marines landed in Afghanistan. It ruffled feathers in Washington and earned an admonishment from higher ups. Mattis later contended in a 2006 speech at the Naval Academy that a journalist left out some context after asking about the turf the Marines had taken.

"I said, ‘Well it kind of means we own it. We're going to give it back to the Afghan people,' " Mattis told the crowd, according to a transcript of the event. "When the word came out, they left the last part off: [It was just] I owned a piece of Afghanistan. Well, I don't have to initiate a salute with many people, but I think every one of them lined up to tell me that I would never make it to the top of your class intellectually, and [they] had other comments about my capabilities."

Gen. James N. Mattis, Commander, U.S. Central Command, speaks to the crew of USS George H.W. Bush during an all hands call.

Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Billy Ho/Navy

It's just one example of Mattis' brash comments raising eyebrows. Most significantly, he sparked controversy in 2005 while speaking at an open forum in San Diego.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he said. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling."

The remark was rebuked by Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, and raised questions as to whether Mattis would be promoted again. There are other examples, though. Perhaps no quote captured his professional duality — intellectual thinker, salty commander — better than those in the 2006 book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," by war correspondent Thomas Ricks. Meeting with Iraqi military leaders in 2003, Ricks reported, Mattis offered a chance to collaborate along with a chilling warning.

"I come in peace," he said. "I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f--- with me, I'll kill you all."

Mattis' star continued to rise despite the controversies. He was promoted to his current rank in 2007 when he became the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command. It was widely reported he was a finalist to become the Corps' commandant in 2010, but he was bypassed in favor of Amos, who already had served as assistant commandant. Mattis became the head of CENTCOM instead, keeping a lower profile while traveling the world to meet with kings, prime ministers and generals.

Ricks speculated in January that Mattis was originally planning to retire in August, but was pushed out early by the White House because he thought the U.S. wasn't thinking through its long-term policy on Iran clearly enough. White House officials disputed the report, and Mattis has declined to discuss what happened.

Still, perhaps the way Mattis is retiring seals his legacy as the most popular general in decades. Had he become commandant, he'd have been faced with a menu of unpopular choices — something Amos and other Marine brass know all too well. War is hell, but it's much more difficult for rank-and-file Marines to embrace their service shrinking before their eyes.

Gen. John Kelly, who served as Mattis' one-star deputy commander during the invasion of Iraq, told Marine Corps Times that Mattis will go out as a brilliant commander who insisted on speaking honestly.

"Only a few guys like them come along per generation," Kelly said, citing Gens. Joseph Dunford and John Allen as others. "They are brilliant. They are dedicated. They are selflessly devoted to their duties. ... They give their unvarnished opinions and recommendations when asked by their political masters or the Congress, then salute and, to their deaths, will carry out the orders they are given. We are less as an institution when men like these ‘go over the side,' as we Marines say, ‘for the last time.'"

Staff writer Gidget Fuentes contributed to this report.

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