WASHINGTON – Gen. James Amos became the 35th commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps on Friday, taking command of a force that has roughly 20,000 Marines deployed at war in southern Afghanistan while at the same time is being tasked to question its own future by civilian defense leaders.
"If I said I was about to jump out of my skin, it would be an understatement," Amos said eagerly, as soon as he took the microphone.
Amos, who served as vice commandant, commanded II Marine Expeditionary Force and an aviation wing in Iraq. He is the first naval aviator to hold the job and takes the post as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for the Marines to conduct an introspective analysis of what kind of force it wants to be in the future.
Gates and Marine Corps leaders frequently bemoan that the corps has been used as a “second land army” in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting away from its amphibious roots. In his remarks Friday, Gates recalled that retiring commandant, Gen. James Conway led Marines through times of change where they, “reached back to their small war heritage.”
Conway frequently likes to say, Gates noted, “Wherever there’s a fight, that’s where the Marine Corps belongs.”
This summer, Gates predicted that the size of the corps likely will decrease as Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown.The last combat-purposed Marine left Iraq this year, though Amos noted the tens of thousands of Marines still fighting in Afghanistan under his watch.
Amos embraced his new mission, referencing a mid-20th Century Congressional mandate: “Our nation still needs a force that is most ready when the nation is least ready,” he said. “That will be my focus during my commandancy for the next four years.”
Looking back, Conway said he leaves those Marines in Afghanistan on a promising note. “There’s a good sense of optimism there,” he said of his last visit, six weeks ago. “Our Marines believe that they have the momentum, they have the initiative. Our Army brothers are starting to see the same thing we think down in the province of Kandahar. Lots of work still to be done; close fight still to be won, but what they all ask of us is that we stay with them.”
An all-star lineup of military leadership attended the ceremony at the historic Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, which was built in 1801 and has been home to every commandant since 1806. Amos lives in 200-year old, red brick officers quarters steps from the main commandant’s house at the end of a long parade ground. After the Conways move out shortly, the house will undergo structural renovations and the Amos family will not move in for roughly another six months, according to Maj. Joseph Plenzler, the commandant’s spokesman.
Attendees included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Cartwright; recently retired National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones; Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey and Vice Chief Gen. Peter Chiarelli; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead; CENTCOM Commander Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, retired Sen. John Warner, R-.Va., former chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee; and former Sen. Chuck Robb, D.-Va., a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam war.
Amid the spit-polished pomp of the occasion, in the simplest of traditions, Conway took the Marine Corps flag from Sgt Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent, passed it to Amos, and the two men switched places.