TAMPA — Chaos is leaving the building.
Blunt, hard-charging and ever-quotable Marine Gen. James Mattis — once given the radio call sign "Chaos" — relinquished the helm of U.S. Central Command on Friday to Gen. Lloyd Austin III in a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base.
Austin is the first African-American to lead CentCom in its 30-year history.
Austin, 59, was the last commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and now he will oversee as CentCom commander the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
With new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel looking on during a ceremony held in one of MacDill's hangars, Austin praised Mattis and then emphasized that the United States isn't turning its back on allies in the region despite leaving Afghanistan.
"The fact is, the full story has not been written," Austin said. "That said, these are historic times and challenging times, and much more will be required of us in the days ahead, for the world we live in remains complex and extremely volatile. … The U.S. will continue to play an important role as a key partner to our friends and allies."
Austin, a West Point graduate with an unblemished 35-year career, isn't well-known outside Pentagon circles. He joined the Army in some of its darkest days after the Vietnam War.
He is known as a hard-working, no-nonsense leader who doesn't seek publicity.
"Leadership is a fascinating thing," Austin said in a 2012 interview with Ebony. "If you look at what the average American envisions the general to be, the commander to be, there's this Patton image. There's this guy who is loud and forceful, the finger-in-the-chest kind of guy. That works well in the movies, but it won't make a guy get up and charge a machine gun for you."
A military change of command is a ritual as old as Rome, and the American version is more about pomp and ceremony than controversy.
Hagel and Austin praised Mattis, who has always been popular with the troops even as rumors swirl about a falling out with President Barack Obama.
"No task was ever beneath him, even as a commanding general," Hagel said. "Whether stepping in to serve as Quantico's duty officer over Christmas so a young Marine could spend the holiday with his family, or crouching in a frozen Afghanistan fighting hole to check on his men in the middle of the night."
Mattis, 62, took the CentCom helm in the summer of 2010 and leaves a few months earlier than what would traditionally be a three-year stint.
Mattis, who could not be reached to comment about his plans, has a reputation for speaking his mind.
"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis said in 2005. "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."
But in Tampa, he stepped on few, if any, verbal land mines. Some military watchers say a blunt style may have handicapped Mattis with Obama.
"Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not because he went all 'mad dog,' which is his public image and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran," Thomas Ricks wrote in January for ForeignPolicy.com.
If any of this were true, Mattis hinted at none of it as he relinquished command.
"I would happily storm hell in the company of these troops, who I haven't the words to sufficiently praise, so I will not try," Mattis said as CentCom troops looked on.
CentCom leaders have struggled to get the media to move on from the controversy generated by Tampa hostess Jill Kelley.
Kelley inadvertently set in motion events that ended the careers of CIA director David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, former CentCom commander.
After she complained to the FBI about anonymous emails she received that Kelley called threatening, Petraeus' affair with biographer Paula Broadwell was uncovered. Then the Pentagon investigated Allen over emails he shared with Kelley.
The Pentagon cleared Allen, but he decided to end his military career rather than become NATO commander in Europe.
One final act by Mattis as CentCom commander offered a surprise: He invited Kelley to Friday's ceremony, according to a statement by Kelley posted online by WTSP-Ch. 10.
Kelley said her presence would "distract from this special day" honoring Austin and Mattis.
So she declined to attend and, the station reported, released the statement a few minutes before the change of command. Mattis and Kelley could not be reached for comment.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.