Gen. Robert Neller has not wasted any time since becoming commandant of the Marine Corps on Sept. 24.
Last month, he released his vision for the next four years — a fragmentary order to the planning guidance released in 2015 by his predecessor, Gen. Joseph Dunford. He ordered a full review of the service’s fitness standards and plans to release a revised version of the Marine Corps’ tattoo policy soon. Neller is also looking to develop more effective strategies for combating suicide among current and veteran Marines.
Meanwhile, he is intent on keeping the force ready to deploy and fight wherever and whenever it is asked to do so.
In his first interview with Marine Corps Times as commandant, Neller talked about how he plans to make Marines physically and mentally tougher and what Marines can expect from him as their leader. Though he declined to talk specifics about gender integration issues following a call from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to make Marine boot camp co-ed, he did say the Corps’ plans to set everyone up for success as they move qualified female troops into ground combat roles.
Excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and space.
Q. You stressed in the FragO that the Marine Corps needs to ensure it’s retaining its most capable leaders. What prompted you to make that a top priority?
A. I think it has always been a priority, but I felt it was important to say it. We have to retain and promote the best people with the right qualities.
We have a very talented force and we want commanders to understand that we have an obligation to talk to our Marines and encourage those we think are most effective to stick around. Everybody has options. I have found that one of the most effective ways to get a Marine to stick around is to ask them.
Q. How will that change promotion or retention processes?
A. We are going to put more pressure on commanders to be involved with retention. We are all recruiters, we are all career planners. I am always talking to Marines about staying, from colonels and generals to lance corporals.
I was talking to a sergeant in the gym this morning who says he is getting out. I asked him, “What would it take to get you to stay?” That made him pause for a second, so I am going to re-attack that later.
Q. Retention has been down in some areas. What challenges does the Corps face in keeping good Marines?
A. When you have a very talented force, which we do — very smart, fit, resilient and experienced — there are other opportunities. Unemployment is down and you have the post-9/11 GI Bill, which is a great opportunity.
We cannot take anything for granted. This is a tough life, so I think we need to exert more effort to be sure they understand that we want them to stay and we appreciate their efforts.
Q. Your FragO also details new promotion review boards for lance corporals and corporals. What will that entail?
A. When I came in the Marine Corps a long time ago, you would appear in front of your unit officers and staff noncommissioned officers and get asked some questions about whether you were qualified for promotion. That kind of went away, so the intent here is to work on a promotion review panel. The Marine will go before the board and review their marksmanship and fitness scores and talk about work performance and professional military education.
That gives the chain of command an opportunity to see everybody. The goal is not to deny people a promotion, but just to make sure everybody understands we all have equity in the process. It codifies existing processes and formalizes it. I think everybody wins.
Q. What do you hope Marines gain from this new process?
A. Most Marines I have talked to are excited about it because they were like, “Hey, I am ready. I will go in front of any board, ask me anything you want.”
I think it will make them understand becoming an NCO is not something that just happens. And I think it will be good for their mentors, too, because if I am your sergeant, I want you to go to the board and do well. So I am going to sit down with you and say, “OK, let’s talk about what is going to happen at the board.” I want leaders to talk to their Marines, and this is just another venue to do that.
Q. Speaking of manpower, there’s a section in the FragO that states the Corps “will be willing to accept risk in the size and organization of our units in order to create the capabilities we need for the future.” Can you elaborate?
A. As we expanded the force to the wartime high of 202,000 Marines, we grew some capabilities that we needed, like explosive ordnance disposal and civil affairs. Now as we look at future threats, there are certain things that I’m not sure we have enough of, like cyber, information operations or electronic warfare.
If we indeed need to make more of those types of Marines but aren’t going to expand the size of the Corps, there are two ways to do that. We can cut units or make some of the units that we have smaller. But the first thing we need to do is identify the capabilities and numbers we need, and then we will figure out where we might have to accept some risks in other units to move toward that structure.
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