Carter Surprises by Picking Neller as Next Marine Commandant

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. Cliff Owen/AP
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller. Cliff Owen/AP

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter reached past a short list of higher-ranking officers Wednesday to recommend that President Obama nominate Lt. Gen. Robert Neller as the 37th Marine Corps commandant.

The 62-year-old Neller, an infantry officer who now serves as head of Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., providing for deployments overseas, would replace Gen. Joseph Dunford, who has been nominated after less than a year as commandant to succeed Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey this fall.

Dunford joined Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Neller at the brief announcement at the Pentagon ahead of a press conference by Carter and Dempsey.

Carter said of Neller that "Bob's a warrior, he's a leader, he's a statesman," and Carter singled out Neller's special concern for the troops he has commanded.

"He loves them, he relates to them and they light up when he talks to them," Carter said of Neller. "I know he will be a magnificent commandant for the Marines serving all over the world."

Dempsey hailed Neller's "incredible joint credentials" in working in concert with the other services and said he had "compete trust and confidence" in Neller's ability to succeed as the top Marine officer.

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    In choosing Neller, Carter went past what was believed to be the short list of those considered potential successors to Dunford, including Marine Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command; Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant; and Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the director for joint force development with the Joint Staff.

    Neller had the advantage of being well known to Carter. They worked closely together when Carter was deputy defense secretary and Neller was director of operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and they traveled together on fact-finding trips to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Neller, of East Lansing, Mich., was commissioned in 1975 after graduation from the University of Virginia. He also has a master's degree in Human Resource Management from Pepperdine University.

    Neller has been a rifle platoon and company leader and participated in Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989 and in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in the 1990s.

    Other assignments included recruiting and director of the Special Training Division at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He has also served as a tactics instructor at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., and as a staff officer in the Policy Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium.

    As deputy commanding general (Operations) of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), Neller served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005-2007.

    -- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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