As Commandant Recovers from Cardiac Arrest, There's Now a 4-Star Officer in the Top Marine Seat Again

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Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric M. Smith
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Eric M. Smith, addresses attendees at the 40th Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony at Lejeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Oct. 23, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Zephir)

A day after he was confirmed as assistant commandant by the Senate, the No. 2 officer in the Marine Corps donned four stars Friday to fill in as the service's top leader remained hospitalized from cardiac arrest.

Christopher Mahoney was promoted to general and sworn in as assistant commandant Friday morning by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro at a small ceremony in the Pentagon, according to a Marine Corps press release.

Mahoney will be "performing the duties of commandant" after Gen. Eric Smith, who was in stable condition earlier this week, according to the Marine Corps, collapsed near Marine Barracks Washington on Sunday evening and received CPR from emergency services.

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The Marine Corps on Friday said that Smith was making “excellent progress following sudden cardiac arrest earlier this week.”

“Once he is discharged from the hospital, he will continue his recovery at his military quarters, but will need to focus on his health prior to fully returning to duty,” the statement said.

Mahoney's confirmation and promotion comes as the Marine Corps weathers the crisis caused by Smith's sudden incapacitation -- and a Senate blockade on confirmations that left the assistant commandant job vacant for months and forced Smith to fill the service's two top jobs before he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.

“Gen. Smith is also aware that Gen. Mahoney additionally is performing the duties of the commandant, until such time that Gen. Smith can resume his normal duties,” according to the Marine Corps update.

For about six days, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl, a three-star who was already holding two jobs, wore a third hat as the interim commandant before Mahoney was confirmed.

"I am excited to have Gen. Mahoney as the 37th assistant commandant of the Marine Corps," Del Toro said. "He has experience with our pacing threat in the Indo-Pacific and is a combat veteran. He is the right leader to continue our efforts to prepare the Marine Corps for future battlefields through Force Design."

Even before Smith's medical emergency, the Marine Corps had a leadership crisis due to the months-long blockade on military confirmations and promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who has single-handedly stopped the typically routine approvals in protest of the Pentagon's policy allowing travel reimbursements when troops seek out civilian abortion services.

"We have seen tragic effects of that stress, but in a day-to-day sense, we've also seen the stress at the individual, human level," Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said Thursday when asked about Tuberville's holds.

The service provided an earlier update on Smith's condition Wednesday and said he was "recovering" at a hospital in Washington, D.C. -- news that elicited audible cheers from Marines in the Pentagon, according to the service's top spokesperson, Maj. Jim Stenger. The service did not provide any more details at the time on Smith's medical emergency or his health.

In the Wednesday update, the Marine Corps also said that Smith's "visitors have been limited to his family at their request."

Smith is one of only three Senate-confirmed service chiefs at a time of heightened tensions and large U.S. deployments in the Middle East. Drone and rocket attacks on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria have spiked, as the entire region teeters at the edge of conflict due to the Israel-Hamas war.

Pentagon leaders also stayed mostly silent through the week.

The Pentagon's top spokesman, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, on Tuesday offered "well wishes and a speedy recovery" on behalf of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Department of Defense, but those were the only public remarks. No other service chief or secretary made a public statement.

A senior defense official did add that Austin has been in touch with Smith's family but wouldn't go into any more detail.

Military.com reached out to spokespeople in all the services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ask whether they were aware of Smith's condition or if they had visited the general.

The office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs did not issue a public statement, but a defense official told Military.com that Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown was getting regular updates on the commandant's condition.

One Navy official confirmed that Del Toro had visited Smith in the hospital, and another spokesperson confirmed that Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the Navy's top officer, has been "getting pretty regular updates as to how he's doing."

That spokesperson also added that Franchetti had reached out to the family, and she's been "following their lead with what they'd like."

Ann Stefanek, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, simply told Military.com that "I don't have any information about their private conversations," referring to the Air Force chief of staff and secretary.

Smith's senior enlisted counterpart, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz, was not briefed on the details of his condition outside of what was officially released from the service due to medical privacy law and "out of respect to the commandant's family," according to a spokesperson for Ruiz, Master Sgt. Michael Cifuentes.

As of Thursday, Ruiz had also not seen Smith since the Sunday incident.

A spokesperson for District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services previously linked Smith's medical emergency to an incident in southeast Washington in which a man was found collapsed on the sidewalk after a cardiac arrest Sunday evening. Bystanders called 911 and performed CPR until emergency services took over.

The Navy's law enforcement arm, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said Thursday that it opened an investigation into the incident.

"NCIS initiated an investigation to rule out any potential criminal element with regards to the commandant's health emergency, as is standard NCIS practice in such situations," said Jeff Houston, a spokesperson for the investigative service. "NCIS currently has no information indicating the commandant was the victim of a crime."

Smith's last public appearance was the Marine Corps Marathon, which occurred earlier on Sunday.

A source familiar with the incident told Military.com that one of the bystanders who responded to the scene when Smith collapsed was a racer who participated in the marathon.

Editor’s note: This report was updated with additional information from the Marine Corps on Smith’s condition.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on X @df_lawrence.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on X at @ktoropin.

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