CAMP PENDLETON — The top general who led Marines into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, drawing both fire and praise for his handling of cases involving the deaths of civilians, bade a reluctant and emotional farewell to his troops Friday.
Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, newly assigned to a joint command at Norfolk, Va., wrote to his Marines and sailors that "you've been my daily inspiration -- even on the toughest days, you've stood there boldly undismayed. . . . I'm forever in your debt."
For the past year, Mattis has led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Central Command, which gave him considerable influence over U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His successor, Maj. Gen. Samuel T. Helland, whose appointment was confirmed Thursday by the Senate, will inherit not just the duties of training and deploying Marines for war zone duty but also the cases of alleged abuse by Marines against civilians.
Mattis was initially criticized by conservatives for bringing charges against Marines; after several cases ended with reduced sentences or charges dropped, some critics charged that he had been too lenient.
Several key cases remain, including the upcoming courts-martial involving Marines linked to the death of 24 civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha in late 2005. As Mattis' successor, Helland will become the convening authority, with the power to accept or reject plea bargains, grant clemency and overturn or reduce any sentences meted out by military juries.
Helland is one of the few officers in the military who served in Vietnam, as an enlisted soldier with the Army's Special Forces. He later graduated from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and became a Marine officer and helicopter pilot.
At the dedication last month for a new addition at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to treat the most severely wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, Helland said that the facility had opened just in time. "We are fighting a ruthless enemy and the fight will not end shortly," he said.
Next week, Mattis will become the U.S. Joint Forces Command commander and NATO supreme allied commander for transformation, based in Norfolk. He will be promoted to general, Helland to lieutenant general.
Mattis is known as a tough-talking infantry officer who once got scolded for saying it was "fun" to kill some enemies. Nonetheless, his letter to his troops was unusually personal, including references to seeing military families "choke back tears" and how U.S. troops show compassion for Iraqis despite "a merciless enemy [that] slaughters the innocent."
The letter includes lines adapted from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats:
"Think where man's glory most begins and ends
and I say my glory was I had such friends."