On his first day at his new job as commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie has a lot on his plate.
An amphibious troop ship with more than 500 Marines and several V-22 Osprey tilt-wing aircraft just entered the Persian Gulf as Iraq is in turmoil with Sunni insurgents swarming toward Baghdad. A drawdown in Afghanistan that increases risk to troops as their numbers get smaller. A bloody revolution in Syria, battles with al-Qaida forces in Yemen and the myriad challenges posed by Iran and Pakistan among other ongoing problems.
But that’s what McKenzie signed on for when he accepted the Marine Corps flag during a change-of-command ceremony in Hangar 3 at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Wednesday morning.
“I’m excited about coming back down to rejoin the CENTCOM family,” McKenzie said.
Not only did he assume command of a headquarters overseeing about 6,000 Marines in one of the world’s most dangerous regions, but he was also promoted from major general and given his third star.
The man he is replacing, Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, who ran the command since it was stood up as the sole headquarters for MARCENT in 2012, is headed to Norfolk, Virginia, where he will take over Marine Corps Forces Command.
McKenzie, speaking to a group of local reporters after the ceremony concluded, declined to talk about the ongoing situation in Iraq, because that’s a situation controlled by his new boss, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who leads U.S. Central Command.
But he said the Marines aboard the USS Mesa Verde, which just entered the Persian Gulf along with the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, are a prime example of plans he helped develop last year as director of the Quadrennial Defense Review Group at Marine headquarters.
“We looked very hard at how we were going to position forces forward for what we call the new normal, a broad range of activities that a forward deployed Marine unit can rapidly respond to and yes that is exactly what we are talking about,” said McKenzie. “That’s going to be the hallmark of the Marine Corps over the next few years — forward deployed, ready to go into action, this afternoon, for a crisis we don’t know about yet.”
McKenzie, who was also planning for an increased Marine presence in Asia, said that because the MARCENT region is so volatile, it will remain a focus.
“What I think you are going to find is we are going to do some things to enhance our long-term presence in the western Pacific,” he said, “but we and the nation clearly recognize that threats remain in the Central Command (region), so we are going to keep a vibrant, robust posture there as well,”
McKenzie, who led Marines in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said the recent presidential runoff election in Afghanistan offers hope for that nation as the U.S. plans a withdrawal of most of its troops by the end of the year. And while decreasing the number of troops increases risk, he said it’s something that the U.S. can handle with help from Afghan partners.
“As you get smaller, there are always risks associated with that,” he said. “We mitigate those risks by training the Afghan National Security Forces who just conducted a remarkably successful runoff election, and I think that’s worth taking a look at. There was a lot of hue and cry about the Taliban was going to be able to disrupt it. Well, in fact, they have not been able to do so.”
McKenzie’s assessment concurred with Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who, along with Austin and U.S. Special Operations Command deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, were among military luminaries on hand Wednesday.
“I would say we have done pretty doggone well,” Amos said of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, “We have every reason to feel good about what has been accomplished in that country. And it was the same way in Iraq. Iraq is going to play out however it's going to play out. But we as nations, we as a coalition and a joint force, sanctified the ground. We sanctified the ground in Iraq, and ladies and gentlemen, I’d argue that we sanctified the ground in Afghanistan as well.”
Amos also injected some humor into the event. Playing up Neller’s outward appearance as a hard-driving Marine general officer, he said those who know him well know otherwise.
“For those of you here who think he is just crusty and you fear approaching him and he has that snarly look on his face and you just live in fear and you get, it’s like you get acid in your stomach when you approach him — it’s like three dozen cappuccinos all at one time in your stomach — those of us who know him call him Cuddles,” Amos said as many of the 300 in attendance laughed, “Because deep down in that crusty heart of his is a heart of gold.”
For McKenzie and his wife, Marilyn, this is their second tour in Tampa. From 2010 to 2012, McKenzie served as the Director, Strategy, Plans and Policy at CENTCOM, also headquartered at MacDill.
“We love Tampa,” he said. “Love the community. It is a warm and very welcoming community. And it’s warm. I’ve been in the District of Colombia last year. A miserable, ugly winter. We are delighted to be back here for the weather, but mainly the people. They are very nice and welcoming to the military. I’ll be gone for much of the time, but my wife is here, and she really loves it.”