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 Lt. Gen. Roger Turner speaks to reporters after taking command of the III Marine Expeditionary Force at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Lt. Gen. Roger Turner speaks to reporters after taking command of the III Marine Expeditionary Force at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, Okinawa — A veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan took command of the Marine Corps’ rapid-response force here Friday as tensions with China are on the rise.

Lt. Gen. Roger Turner took leadership of the III Marine Expeditionary Force from Lt. Gen. James Bierman Jr. during a chilly ceremony inside a hangar along MCAS Futenma’s flight line.

“It’s our job to train and build readiness for world class naval expeditionary forces for the defense of Japan and also for the security of the rest of the region,” Turner told reporters at a press conference following the ceremony. “Our main goal here is to deter conflict and to respond to humanitarian crisis, but we are also prepared to aggressively defend shall diplomacy fail.”

The III Marine Expeditionary Force Band performs during IIMEF's change-of-command ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

The III Marine Expeditionary Force Band performs during IIMEF's change-of-command ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

The 40-year service veteran and Bronze Star recipient arrives at a time of heightened tensions in the region. China, labeled the top global “pacing challenge” in the Pentagon’s 2022 National Defense Strategy, has rapidly expanded its military and raised provocations with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines in the East and South China Seas. The United States is bound by treaty to come to their defense.

Japan has been fortifying its southern island chain in recent months and has deployed surface-to-ship missiles to its island bases.

Turner is a veteran of Desert Storm and combat in Ramadi in Iraq and Helmand Province in Afghanistan, according to his Marine Corps biography. He previously served as acting deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations at the Pentagon.

Bierman, who led III MEF out of the COVID-19 pandemic when he took command in November 2021, is known for overseeing expanding partnerships with the Japan Self-Defense Forces. He also worked to implement much of the Corps’ Force Design 2030 modernization effort.

The island-fighting doctrine implemented by former commandant Gen. David Berger calls for inserting smaller, mobile units within range of enemy missiles to seize and hold key islands and deny enemy vessels access to the surrounding seas.

Bierman also oversaw the November launch of the service’s new seaborne quick-reaction force, the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment. His accomplishments were lauded by Commandant Gen. Eric Smith.

“With you at the helm, III MEF ensured our vital strategic position in the Indo-Pacific region,” Smith said in a statement read during Friday’s ceremony. “Your efforts supporting and partnering with our allies will have lasting and positive impacts for years to come.”

Bierman will take over as deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, III MEF spokesman 2nd Lt. Owen Hitchcock said by email Tuesday.

Friday’s ceremony was moved inside due to inclement weather. Lt. Gen. William Jurney presided with an array of aircraft and weaponry arrayed across the flight line.

“The cutting edge of the Pacific Marines is III MEF,” he said. Turner is “the right leader in the right place, at the right time.”

III MEF, based at Marine base Camp Courtney, consists of 27,000 Marines and sailors at camps and air stations on Okinawa, on main-island Japan and in Hawaii. It’s a “force in readiness” capable of responding to a crisis or taking up major combat operations, according to the III MEF website.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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