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In 'Unique' Change of Command, Neller Succeeds Dunford as Commandant

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, center, accepts the Marine Corps colors from Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2015. (Photo By: Sgt. Melissa Marnell)
Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller, center, accepts the Marine Corps colors from Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., Sept. 24, 2015. (Photo By: Sgt. Melissa Marnell)

With a pat on the back and a long handshake, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. stepped down Thursday as 36th commandant of the Marine Corps and passed command to career infantry officer Gen. Robert B. Neller.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus noted the unprecedented nature of the change of command ceremony at the historic "8th and I" Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C.

Such occasions are usually "bittersweet" as the outgoing commandant retires, Mabus said. "Today though is unique and purely celebratory, in that we won't be saying goodbye to Gen. Dunford," he said.

"Instead, he moves from the highest uniformed Marine Corps office to the nation's highest military post as our next chairman of the Joint Chiefs," Mabus said. On Friday, Dunford will become the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replacing the retiring Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

In his remarks, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that Neller had demonstrated in his 40-year career the same leadership qualities that brought Dunford to the nation's top military post.

"Bob, too, is a tested warrior and innovative strategist," Carter said, and "like his predecessor, Gen. Neller is a thinker." He cited Neller's constant refrain to Marines: "If we want to win, we can't just show up."

Dunford's character was epitomized by a young officer who said of him, "Someday I will tell my grandkids that I was one of Joe Dunford's lieutenants," Carter said.

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In their own remarks, both Dunford and Neller spoke off the cuff, grabbing the microphone from the stand and striding before the audience.

Dunford said it was ironic for a diehard Red Sox fan to be paraphrasing the Yankees' "Iron Horse" Lou Gehrig, who said in his farewell address, "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," despite the disease that would soon take his life.

"This morning, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," Dunford said. He called himself "fortunate to claim the title of Marine for even just one day," and fortunate to be assuming the highest military office in the nation.

"A few minutes ago, Bob Neller became my commandant. He has the energy and vision to take us into the future," Dunford said.

While praising Dunford's leadership, Neller gave Marines a heads-up that changes are coming. In a separate message to all Marines, Neller said that Dunford had put the Corps on the right path but, "That said, no later than the New Year I will publish a 'FragO' to the current CPG."

In Marine-speak, that's a Fragmentary Order to the existing Commandant's Planning Guidance. "Like war itself, our approach to warfighting must evolve," Neller said.

At the ceremony, Neller rattled off the names of the non-commissioned officers from sergeant to sergeant major who took him under their wings. "They took some kind of pain in the butt, loudmouth lieutenant and saw something in him," Neller said.

"Now it's the challenge to make this go forward," he added. "I appreciate your support. Now let's go do this."

Mabus and Dunford made no reference to their recent public disagreements on opening up all military occupational specialties to women.

One of Dunford's last acts as commandant was to submit the Marines' recommendations on whether to seek exceptions to the general order to open up all billets to women. All the services must submit their recommendations by Oct. 1 and Carter will evaluate them and make his decisions early next year.

Mabus has argued that even the Navy SEALs will not seek an exception. On the television network PBS on Tuesday, Mabus said that women who can meet high standards should qualify for any position -- "that shouldn't depend on gender."

He said, "Gen. Dunford and I have tremendous respect for each other," but "we give each other very candid opinions."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.

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