Dunford takes over for Amos as commandant of the US Marine Corps

General Amos claps as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel thanks Amos' wife for her dedication to the military during the Passage of Command ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17, 2014. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)
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General Amos claps as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel thanks Amos' wife for her dedication to the military during the Passage of Command ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17, 2014. (Meredith Tibbetts/Stars and Stripes)

Dunford takes over for Amos as commandant of the US Marine Corps

by: Jon Harper | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: October 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — Gen. Joseph Dunford became the 36th commandant of the Marine Corps on Friday, as Gen. James Amos closed the curtain on his controversial tenure.

Dunford takes over at a time of transition for the Marine Corps, and he faces significant challenges, from maintaining combat readiness to looming budget cuts.

“My focus in the coming years will be to take care of our Marines and their families and to ensure that our corps remains the expeditionary force in readiness that our nation has come to expect,” he said during the ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington.

Dunford, nicknamed “Fighting Joe,” most recently served as the commander of all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, where for the past two years he oversaw the ongoing drawdown of American troops and the transition from a combat mission to an advise and assist role.

During that time, he helped secure a much desired bilateral security agreement with the government of Afghanistan, which will allow the U.S. to leave a residual force there beyond the end of this year to conduct counterterrorism operations and advise the Afghan security forces.

Dunford is also an Iraq War veteran, having served as the commander of the 5th Marine regiment during the U.S. invasion.

“Gen. Dunford has had a storied career,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said at the ceremony. “He is a highly respected battle-tested infantry officer.”

Dunford isn’t new to the Pentagon. From 2010 to 2012, he held the No. 2 position in the Marine Corps while serving as assistant commandant. He can draw on that as he transitions from fighting insurgents in Afghanistan to fighting bureaucratic battles in Washington.

He faces several critical tasks, including refocusing the Marine Corps. For the past 13 years, the service essentially functioned as a second land army battling insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the post-9/11 wars drawing to a close, the Marines must find new missions as the services compete for defense dollars, and people and programs are on the chopping block.

Officials see the Pentagon’s plan to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region as an opportunity for the Marines to return to their roots as an amphibious force that operates closely with the Navy, much like during World War II. But in an era of advanced anti-ship missiles, there are doubts about the viability of Iwo Jima-style island invasions and the need to prepare for them.

Ensuring that the Marines are capable of acting as the nation’s crisis response force will be critical in an era where instability in the Middle East and North Africa has been dubbed “the new normal.”

U.S. officials — desperate to avoid another incident like the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya — have called on the Marines to establish special crisis response forces within reach of global hotspots.

On the personnel front, the new commandant must decide which combat roles will be opened to women in the coming years — a major source of controversy especially within the Marine Corps.

Looming budget cuts threaten to upend everything, if Congress doesn’t get rid of sequestration, which is slated to hit the Pentagon again in 2016.

“Commandant Dunford will have his hands full,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said.

In addition to praising the new commandant, Pentagon leaders at the ceremony reflected on the four-year tenure of Amos, which was both groundbreaking and controversial.

He was the first Marine aviator ever to occupy the top slot in a service where ground pounders typically reign supreme. He also oversaw the implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — which enabled gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military — even though he publically opposed the decision.

Perhaps his greatest achievement, from the perspective of the Marine Corps, was protecting the service from the large troop level cuts that often hit when major wars wind down and periods of fiscal austerity set in. In the coming years, the active-duty component is slated to remain larger than it was before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army active-duty component, by comparison, will drop from its prewar level of 480,000 to as low as 420,000.

“He’s leaving the Marine Corps in better shape for the post-war [era] than any other commandant has done” in modern history, a Marine officer told Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide an assessment of Amos’ tenure.

Amos was also successful in advancing two controversial aviation programs — the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the MV-22 Osprey troop transport — which are pillars of the Marines’ future operating concept.

On his watch, the service stood up a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force to serve as a crisis response unit. Since its establishment last year, the force has been called upon to evacuate the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and reinforce endangered diplomatic facilities in other parts of Africa. A similar unit is being set up in the Middle East, which will help reestablish the Marine Corps as the nation’s go-to “911” force.

Amos was also a lightning rod for controversy.

He was accused of exercising unlawful command influence by encouraging Marine officials to bring the hammer down on those accused of sexual assault, as well as the Marine snipers who urinated on Taliban corpses in a viral video.

The Defense Department Inspector General cleared Amos in the urination case, but at least one sexual assault sentence was set aside after a Navy-Marine Corps appeals court found that the commandant’s remarks improperly influenced the sentencing decision. Other appeals have been made on similar grounds.

Amos also angered the rank and file with several of his uniform policies. Early in his tenure, commanders began strictly enforcing a longstanding ban on jewelry, preventing Marines from wearing bracelets honoring Marines who were killed in action. Amos later carved out an exception to the general rule and allowed troops to wear the bracelets while in uniform.

He reintroduced “Charlie Fridays,” which require Marines to don their Charlie uniforms on Fridays rather than wear their more comfortable utilities.

He also banned Marines from rolling up their sleeves — a tradition unique to the service — but reversed the decision in the wake of widespread complaints.

Amos publicly expressed his opposition to overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which put him at odds with the commander-in-chief, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Amos said the move would be a distraction for troops and undermine readiness, but later acknowledged that the change didn’t cause any significant problems.

Even the final days of his tenure brought more controversy, as questions were raised as to whether Amos had successfully completed the Basic School — a rigorous training program for new Marine officers. Marine Corps officials have said that Amos completed the course via correspondence.

Reflecting on all the changes and challenges that occurred during Amos’ tenure, Hagel told the audience: “Gen. Amos has said change doesn’t come easy in the Marine Corp, but when it is rooted it lasts forever. Jim’s lasting legacy will be his effort to ensure that the Marine Corps’ new traditions are firmly rooted, leaving behind a Corps stronger than ever before.”

Twitter: @JHarperStripes