The 'Unflappable' Warrior-Scholar: Meet Your Next Marine Corps Commandant

Lieutenant Gen. David H. Berger (left), commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks before promoting Brig. Gen. Vincent A. Coglianese (right), commanding general, 1st Marine Logistics Group, to major general aboard Camp Pendleton, California, August 2014. (Sarah Fiocco/U.S. Marine Corps)
Lieutenant Gen. David H. Berger (left), commanding general, I Marine Expeditionary Force, speaks before promoting Brig. Gen. Vincent A. Coglianese (right), commanding general, 1st Marine Logistics Group, to major general aboard Camp Pendleton, California, August 2014. (Sarah Fiocco/U.S. Marine Corps)

More than three decades have passed since Tim DeBoda served with Marine Lt. Gen. David Berger, but he still calls him one of the best leaders he has ever known.

The two were lieutenants with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, in the early 1980s when the infantry battalion deployed to Japan. When company commanders needed information, DeBoda said, they went straight to Berger.

"When you talked with Dave, he would talk to you in a clear, conversational tone that explained anything you needed to know," DeBoda, who left the Marine Corps as a captain, said. "There was never a hint of irritation or impatience. He was highly respected by all of us even though we were all lieutenants."

In late March, Berger was nominated to pin on a fourth star and serve as the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps. Currently the head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Virginia, the career infantry officer has led Marines in Desert Storm; in Fallujah, Iraq; Helmand province in Afghanistan; and across the Pacific.

Berger said he's honored to be considered for the role and is looking forward to the nomination process, according to a statement provided to Military.com.

Other Marines who served with Berger at various points in his career highlighted his passion for leading young Marines and his calm demeanor in the face of anything.

Former Sgt. Mathew Meyer was also with Berger at 3/7. For some new officers, it takes time to grow into their leadership role, Meyer said. But that wasn't the case for Berger.

"What's really interesting is I look at what Lt. Berger was in the early '80s and what he is now, and he has the same demeanor," he said. "He has that professional, quiet confidence. He was unflappable then and he's unflappable now."

During a change-of-command ceremony for I Marine Expeditionary Force, which Berger led until 2016, Gen. Robert Neller, the current commandant, had some high praise for the general's impact on the Marine Corps.

"He's made the Marine Corps a better warfighting organization," Neller said, "which, at the end of the day is what we're all about."

'The Right Person for the Right Time'

Berger has been a Marine officer for 38 years.

The 59-year-old earned his commission in 1981 after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, where he studied engineering. If confirmed, he'll become the first person from Maryland to serve as Marine Corps commandant.

After serving as a platoon commander, Berger joined 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion during Desert Storm, where he served as company commander and operations officer. He has completed jumpmaster and Navy dive school.

After making colonel, Berger led Regimental Combat Team 8 in Fallujah, Iraq, earning the Legion of Merit with Combat "V" device for exceptional leadership on that deployment.

He then did a stint at the Pentagon with Plans, Policies and Operations before deploying to Afghanistan in 2012 as commanding general of 1st Marine Division (Forward).

When he returned, Berger took command of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms in California as the service was shifting back toward integrated- and large-scale training exercises. The move was meant to prepare Marines for combined-arms operations after years of pre-deployment workups for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You don't need a Marine Corps, unless it can give you something that no one else can," Berger said at the time, according to a Marine Corps news release. "That is what is unique about us. On any notice, or even no notice, we are ready to have forces on the ground, and planes in the air, because that is what we do best."

Berger would then go onto command the California-based I Marine Expeditionary Force and later Marine Corps Forces Pacific, where he oversaw troops in Japan, Australia, Guam and other locations in the region.

Meyer, now an attorney who's still close with Berger today, said the general recognizes the huge transition the Marine Corps is experiencing and the need to prepare the service to counter future threats.

"I really think he is the right person at the right time to ... really have an impact," Meyer said. "I think the last thing on his mind is the notoriety or fame that might come with being commandant.

"He would be looking at his role as commandant as really making significant and historic changes to the Marine Corps," he added.

'A Steady Hand'

As a young officer, one of the things that made Berger stick out was that he understood the mission came before ego, DeBoda said.

"He had an innate ability to communicate smoothly and articulately under stress, and definitely stood out among junior officers," he said. "I never saw him the least bit intimidated by rank, attitude or ego -- something very uncommon among junior officers."

If something went wrong, it was reassuring to see Berger at the battalion command post, DeBoda added. No matter what challenge they faced, Meyer said Berger was always collected and professional.

"He's always had a steady hand," he said. "I've never seen him lose his temper, or I guess on the other hand, be over-exuberant or overly celebratory."

Berger seemed most at home when the Marines were in the field. He lived for the tactics, Meyer said. He loved innovating always listened to what his Marines had to say -- especially his enlisted leaders.

"He had a tremendous amount of respect for his noncommissioned officers and the amount of responsibility he would give them," Meyer said.

That has carried forward throughout Berger's career. Like several leaders in recent years, Berger would host barbecues and other commanding general events, where he hosted NCOs to hear about their needs and what was on their minds.

When paid Berger a visit when he was commanding I MEF, the general gave him a tour of Camp Pendleton to show off all the changes since the two served there. What Berger was most proud of, Meyer said, was that the MEF had been able to upgrade the bachelor enlisted quarters.

That kind of leadership is not surprising to DeBoda. In the 30 years since leaving the Marine Corps, he still considers Berger a role model.

"Dave is one the best leaders I've ever met, in the military or corporate world," he said. "A role model -- that's what I remember. And just a hell of a nice guy. I am proud that I had the opportunity to serve with him."

Warrior Scholar, Forward Thinker

Kelly Magsamen, vice president of national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, has served with Berger in a different role.

The two first studied together at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, where Berger earned a master's degree in international public policy. In the classroom, Magsamen found Berger to be analytical, mild-mannered and eager to hear his classmates' perspectives.

"He's not a big loud guy -- he's somewhat reserved," she said. "I found him very engaging and thoughtful. A warrior scholar is a good way to describe him."

Their paths crossed again when Berger was at MARFORPAC, and Magsamen was an adviser to the defense secretary on security policy for Asia. She said she was excited to see him nominated to become the Marine Corps' next top officer.

"He's seen American policy at the strategic level, he's been an operational commander clearly, and he's been well educated about strategy and military history, so he brings all those things to bear in this position as commandant," she said. "I think that will be extremely valuable to the Marine Corps."

His studies combined with his time serving as a commander in the Pacific give him a strategic framework for thinking about the challenges the Marine Corps will be facing, not just for the next four years, but for the next 20 years

At the forefront of that, she added, will be challenges with China.

"I'm excited to see someone with recent experience in the Pacific being nominated for this post because I think it's really important for the Marine Corps to return to some of its core mission areas after 17 years of war in the Middle East," Magsamen said. "I think this is a really important strategic inflection point for the Marine Corps as well."

In his current post at Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Berger has helped reform training to make sure Marines are ready for a near-peer fight. He's also leading experimental efforts that have Marines thinking about long-range precision fires and getting gear into the fight using robots, drones and other technology.

And at MARFORPAC, Berger oversaw the first operational deployments of the F-35B joint-strike fighters in the theater and a bigger footprint in Australia.

He's also busy testifying on Capitol Hill this month, something he'll have to continue to do if approved to become commandant, pushing lawmakers to fund vital Marine Corps equipment and projects. Late last month, Berger stressed the importance of getting more amphibious ships, which Neller has said are vital to remaining relevant in the Pacific.

As the son of an airman as well as a husband and father of four, Berger has credited his family with supporting him throughout his career. When he made one-star, he joked about his family being quick to step in to make sure he remained grounded.

"I have a tremendous family. They're a hoot," he said at his promotion ceremony. "They will put you in your place if you start to get a little big in the head in a heartbeat."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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