MARINE BARRACKS WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he insisted on being a speaker at the retirement Thursday of Gen. John "Jay" Paxton, the longest serving assistant commandant of the Marine Corps in the service's history.
Carter, who collaborated with Paxton on the Pentagon's effort to counter the improvised explosive device threat to American troops in Afghanistan, said the 42-year officer was tireless and undeterred when it came to caring for and protecting his troops.
"He brought a field commander's operational style to the E-Ring of the Pentagon, of all places, focusing on identifying solutions or assigning responsibility," Carter said. "Answers like 'It can't happen,' or 'It's too costly,' or 'It will take years,' weren't acceptable. Jay's answer was always, 'Figure it out and come back to me.' "
Ultimately, Carter said, Paxton was instrumental in the fielding of some 8,000 V-hulled mine-resistant ambush protected all-terrain vehicles and training Marines to use them downrange -- all in the span of just 16 months.
Paxton, 65, became the Marine Corps' number two officer in late 2012, serving in the office under three different commandants over the course of nearly four years. An infantry officer, he served in a position of command at nearly every Marine Corps installation across the globe. As a general, he served as chief of staff for Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, and later commanded Marine Forces Africa and Marine Forces Europe.
Carter said he got to know Paxton well during the officer's tour as director of programs at the Pentagon's division of Programs and Resources. Paxton was able to increase the number of surveillance balloons over U.S. outposts in Afghanistan from four to 144, he said, vastly increasing their situational awareness on the battlefield.
Paxton, he said, would frequently visit troops in these forward operating bases to listen to their needs and concerns, once traveling in an armored convoy to observe the single-lane Chaman border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan through which American supplies and gear traveled.
"On these trips, Jay took every opportunity to speak individually to every Marine, every soldier," Carter said. "To let them know that we were here for them, not the other way around."
Paxton began nearly every speech and address with an anecdote from Marine Corps history and had an impressive and long-ranging memory.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller, the retirement official for Paxton's ceremony, joked that it didn't quite feel right to be presiding over the event.
"I kind of felt like a kid standing in front of Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken, wishing I had a baseball," he said.
When Neller and Paxton worked together on the Joint Staff, Paxton was famous for the long hours he worked, Neller said.
"The guy just knows his stuff," Neller said. "He knows more about war than anyone I've ever met in my life as a Marine."
Paxton received the Distinguished Service Medal during the ceremony, signaling meritorious service in a public position. In Paxton's retirement order, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus praised him for his work on, among other things, the Pentagon's Force of the Future initiative and overhauls to pay and retirement programs.
Paxton's wife, Debbie, a registered nurse, received the distinguished public service medal in recognition of her work on behalf of Marines, including a role as mental health adviser to the Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment.
Paxton quipped that he had thought his Marine Corps career would last only three years, not 42.
In a brief speech, he honored the Marine Corps team and said he had taken to heart a motto -- pulled from the 1959 film Ben-Hur -- that had been popular among general officers on the Joint Staff.
"We live for the good of the ship," Paxton said. "Row well and live."
Jay and Debbie Paxton made their final exit from Marine Barracks Washington arm-in-arm to the 1976 Orleans song, "Still the One."