When asked about the morale of U.S. troops overseas, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis tells the story of encountering two young infantrymen in the Helmand River Valley of Afghanistan.
Their unit had been through heavy combat, and they were soaked from head to toe.
"They were probably not old enough to buy a beer legally," he said.
They would have had every reason to complain, but when he asked how they were doing, they smiled and joked. "Living the dream, general."
Never miss a local story.
It's the can-do attitude of U.S. troops and their allies in the Middle East that gives Mattis confidence that progress is possible and is being made.
Mattis, a Richland native, is the commander of U.S. Central Command, a military authority covering 20 countries from Egypt in the west to Pakistan in the east.
It's a volatile region, and Mattis is overseeing the nation's military presence at a time when the United States is on the verge of withdrawing from Iraq and the Arab Spring has toppled regimes -- and no one yet knows what shape new governments may take.
"In all the years I've served there, I have never seen it in so much turmoil," Mattis told a crowd of more than 200 at the Richland Rotary Club on Tuesday. "It will never be the same. It's too early to tell with the revolutions going on if they will turn into democracies or turn into new autocrats, new dictatorships. It is also an area that no matter how frustrated we get, we cannot turn our backs on it."
Though the threat from al-Qaida has been diminished with the death of Osama bin Laden, Mattis doesn't count the terrorist group out just yet.
But the biggest threat to stability and peace in the region is Iran, he said. Agent provocateurs from Iran have been present in turmoil in Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
"Hezbollah is a complete proxy of Iran," he said. "Everywhere you go, you find Iran's hand. ... It is Iranian guerrillas who have cost us most of our soldiers in the last two years."
He doesn't see much hope in preventing Iran from continuing to develop a nuclear program, but it remains a mystery whether the nation will decide to produce a bomb.
He said U.S. foreign policy in the region is built on four principles: supporting democratic reform at the pace appropriate to each nation, economic reform that reduces the disparity between "haves" and "have nots," finding a solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and preventing Iran from disrupting the region by supporting terrorists and violent extremists.
He said a two-state solution must be found for Israel and Palestine to prevent the situation from leading to another war.
"The current situation is unsustainable," he said. "It demands a political solution. ... If we can't keep the peace there, it will be a war like no other. It will be very, very ugly."
He noted that Americans are supported in the region by a large and broad coalition of other nations -- including Muslim nations -- who have paid their own price despite the focus on U.S. casualties in the domestic media.
"Three of those nations have lost more (troops) per capita than we have," he said.
But it's the spirit of the men and women under his command that lets him keep the faith in the midst of a whirlwind.
"What gives me confidence is the intelligence, the selfless nature and the competence of our young troops," Mattis said. "I know who's the good guys in this fight and I know who's the bad guys, and I know who's going to win."