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Commandant of the Marine Corps Passage of Command

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Marine Corps Barracks, Washington, DC, Friday, October 22, 2010

I can’t think of a more fitting location than the Marine Corps barracks to honor General James Conway as he retires after four decades of service to our country and welcome a new commandant who will lead the Marines into the future.

I’d like to start by saying a few words about the Conway family.  Jim’s wife, Annette, has provided extraordinarily strong support throughout his career, dealing with all of the untold challenges and sacrifices faced by so many of America’s military families.  Jim’s sons, Brandon and Scott, have honorably carried forward their father’s commitment to service.  Both, wisely I might add, followed his lead and joined the Marines.  Both have served multiple combat tours and both are preparing to deploy again.  His daughter Samantha also displayed the good taste to marry a Marine.

We say goodbye today to a true warrior who established his place as one of the military’s most seasoned and capable leaders.  Thanks to 40 years spent teaching, leading and mentoring Marines at every level, General Conway leaves behind a force that is as agile, resourceful and lethal as much so as any in the Marines storied history. 

In 2003, as commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, General Conway led his Marines ashore in Kuwait with their armored vehicles and rolled 500 miles north alongside an Army corps to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein – battling tanks and artillery one day and swarms of fanatical fedayeen irregulars the next.  It was a mission, I should note, for which the Marines were not originally designed, but at which they were characteristically successful. General Conway and his Marines returned to Iraq in 2004 as a vicious insurgency exploded across the country.  They were promptly handed a chunk of that country’s toughest real estate, Anbar province, and saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the conflict during the first battle of Fallujah. 

Jim’s steadfast leadership as commandant came at a critical time, during the Iraq conflict’s darkest days.  Drawing upon a proud tradition of adaptability, the Marines in Anbar reached back to their small wars heritage, and produced an innovative approach to counterinsurgency, all the while keeping their boots on the neck of the enemy.  In a letter recognizing the Marine’s role in Iraq, General Ray Odierno wrote that thanks to Marine efforts, Anbar province was the epicenter for the Sunni awakening and served as the model for units to emulate during the surge of 2007.

Yet, General Conway was never one to rest on hard-won laurels.  Worried his Marines might go soft with the amenities of  big bases, he frequently declared that wherever there’s a fight, that’s where the Marine Corps belongs.  So once again, battle-hardened Marines have been sent into insurgent strongholds, this time in Afghanistan, contributing a new chapter in the Marine Corps roll of honor with their sweat – and with their blood.  During General Conway’s career and under his leadership, to paraphrase Douglas MacArthur, Marines have continued to write their own history and continued to write it in red on their enemy’s breast.

As commandant, Jim made the health of the force a top priority, ensuring his Marines had the right tools for the job and new Marines were of the highest quality.  Today, Marine recruits consistently exceed both DOD and Marine Corps standards.  When I directed the Marines to boost their numbers in this high demand period, most expected it would take five years to add 27,000 to the rolls.  They did it in less than half that time.

Mindful of the heavy price paid by so many of our service members, Jim and Annette have passionately advocated for more and better resources to care for the ill or injured.  He established the Wounded Warrior Regiment to provide state-of-the-art care and outreach to wounded or sick Marines and their families, and to do so long after they have left the service.  Never once has he stopped caring for and bettering one of America’s most cherished institutions and one of the world’s most feared and respected fighting forces.

As the Marines look to the future, I’ve challenged them to think hard about their role after spending the past eight years fighting as a so-called second land army.  They need to preserve both their maritime soul and the hard-won counterinsurgency skills they’ve developed during this past decade.  Doing this will demand an intellectual investment similar to that of Marine Corps forebears who developed novel amphibious warfare concepts in the years leading up to World War II. 

I can’t think of a Marine better suited to lead that effort than General James Amos, the 35th commandant of the Marine Corps.  At the risk of revealing his age, General Amos first flew the venerable F-4 Phantom – to those younger folks here, that’s the fighter you always see on the History channel in documentaries on Vietnam.  

While General Amos will be the first naval aviator to serve as Marine Corps commandant, he is, like all Marines, a rifleman first.  He will, I’m confident, find the right balance between what is needed to win the wars we’re in while ensuring Marines remain the expeditionary force in readiness for the 21st century.  As the Marines new operating concept says: “the call “Send in the Marines” connotes both a demand for action and a presumption of success.”  That is the legacy he will help carry forward.

I’m told General Amos is on a one-man mission to banish the term “former Marine” from the lexicon.  He says you’re either a Marine in uniform or you’re a Marine wearing another uniform, but you’re a Marine for life.  In Jim Conway’s case, I understand his next uniform will likely be a pair of fishing waders.  Whether or not those waders come in Marine digital camouflage, there’s no question in my mind that he will be a Marine’s Marine for life.

Jim, thank you for your life of dedicated and selfless service to our nation.  I wish you and Annette all the best as you begin the next chapter in your lives.

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