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He commanded the unit that led the 2003 invasion of Iraq, oversaw the bulk of the politically fraught drawdown of combat operations in Afghanistan, and earned a spot this year on Fortune Magazine's list of the world's 50 greatest contemporary leaders.
On June 5, Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Dunford was nominated to be the 36th commandant of the Marine Corps. Pending Senate confirmation, he is expected to assume command from Gen. Jim Amos sometime this fall.
Marine officers who know Dunford say he's best defined by what he does away from public view.
While serving as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps under Amos, Dunford caught wind of a story about a lance corporal who had come to the aid of a woman being harassed by a group of hooligans outside Marine Barracks Washington. He insisted on meeting the young Marine and commending him for doing the right thing.
Gestures of this kind are important to Dunford. Colleagues called the even-keeled 58-year-old Boston native a "gentleman warrior" who never forgets a name and who has a rare talent for conversing easily with Marines of every rank. A Ranger-qualified infantryman with jump wings and nearly four years spent between Iraq and Afghanistan, Dunford has the physical presence of a warrior: he has a habit of going on seven-mile runs in the heat of the day and completed the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012 with his adult children Patrick and Kathleen at his side.
He's also viewed as one of the Corps' sharpest minds, a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School with a degree in political science from St. Michael's College in Burlington, Vermont, and dual master's degrees from Georgetown University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
Dunford's insistence on writing personal condolence letters to families of fallen troops, allied forces as well as American, has become part of his legend.
"He took great care in making sure it wasn't a form letter," said a former Dunford aide, who asked that his name not be used. "He always made sure that no two letters were the same."
As commander of the International Security Assistance Force and all coalition forces in Afghanistan, Dunford has embraced the same interpersonal philosophy while pulling no punches in his dealings with U.S. or Afghan leadership.
During his tenure in Afghanistan, Dunford has made a habit of releasing condolence statements to the people of Afghanistan following humanitarian tragedies and enemy attacks, and offering good wishes during observances such as the religious feast of Eid. In late 2013, he called Afghan president Hamid Karzai personally to apologize for a U.S. drone strike that killed a young child. But that same year, he warned his generals that inflammatory remarks that Karzai had made might lead to more insider attacks on U.S. troops. When Dunford's memo became public, Karzai dialed back his statements with a clarification that reasserted his commitment to the coalition mission.
Dunford was "especially good with Iraqis and I believe he's especially good with the Afghans," said John Kael Weston, a former State Department official and adviser to Marine generals who met Dunford in Fallujah. "Where our leaders made a big difference is how they dealt with the people they had to partner with. You can't put a price on how important that is."
Last year Dunford told Congress that he believed it was possible to win in Afghanistan, defining victory as the creation of strong and sustainable Afghan forces and a stable civil government. He has remained adamant, however, in his call for a force of 8,000-12,000 coalition troops to remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year. President Barack Obama recently announced that a 10,000-strong contingency force would remain behind, in keeping with that request.
The 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps, retired Gen. Jim Jones, said Dunford had proved himself in Afghanistan.
"He demonstrated his abilities in a very complex international environment at a critical time and has represented the United States in a remarkable fashion," Jones said, hailing his nomination to commandant.
Supported by his peers
Many had speculated that Gen. John Kelly, Dunford's contemporary and fellow Bostonian, also was a finalist for the Corps' top job. Kelly, who heads U.S. Southern Command in Miami, greeted the announcement with enthusiasm, praising the character of his longtime pal. As assistant commandant in 2010, it was Dunford who delivered to Kelly the news that his son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, had been killed in Afghanistan. To say that these two are tight would diminish the extraordinary nature of their relationship. They've known one another for more than 30 years, since they were lieutenants.
"He is my friend," Kelly told Marine Corps Times. "My best friend."
Kelly called Dunford "the finest military officer in uniform today," singling out his skills as a manager, organizer, thinker and leader. "He trusts Marines and naturally 'powers down' authority and decision making to our most junior leaders, NCOs and officers, with confidence and without hesitation," Kelly added. "He is tough, but compassionate and understands this generation of Marines like few do."
Retired Gen. Jim Mattis, the former chief of U.S. Central Command who still enjoys the status of a legend among Marines, called Dunford one of the most accomplished combat leaders in the Corps. Then a colonel and the commander of the 5th Regimental Combat Team, Dunford served under Mattis during the 2003 Iraq invasion.
"Extremely well read and richly experienced, he is never caught flat-footed," Mattis said. "He exercises a visionary yet pragmatic leadership style that well qualifies him for leadership of our Corps during this period of dramatic change."
Dunford's predecessor at ISAF, retired Gen. John Allen, now a distinguished fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution, spoke of his former colleague in hyperbole.
"We simply could not have selected a Marine of greater integrity, operational experience, or warfighting process," he said.
Dunford's ability to win the support and admiration from across an often-competitive field of senior general officers speaks to his leadership style, said retired Lt. Gen. John Sattler, a former commander of I MEF who first met Dunford when the nominee for commandant was a second lieutenant at The Basic School. Even then, Sattler said, he was known for his charisma.
"He has tremendous interpersonal skills," Sattler said. "He's just so approachable that he inspires people, motivates and empowers them."
Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, who retired last year as director of Marine Corps staff at the Pentagon, worked closely with the service's deputy commandants to craft and implement policy on a range of challenging issues, including sex assault prevention, women's role in the Corps and the repeal of "don't ask don't tell." And in that role, Williams consulted with Dunford daily, he said, often before information was presented to Amos for final review and approval.
"Sometimes [Dunford] would think of things we hadn't considered or thought through fully," he explained. "I was always comfortable going to him with just about anything, and I was sure I was going to get his best effort and thoughts on that issue. ... I'd always walk away with a better product than what I had going in."
Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, who retired in 2011 as the 16th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and served with Dunford in Iraq before they served together at the Pentagon, summed up his thoughts succinctly.
"He's the damn epitome of a Marine leader," Kent said.
A Marine Corps in flux
Fresh from overseeing the bulk of base handoffs and drawdown efforts in Afghanistan, Dunford will be called to oversee the Marines' transition to peacetime life in garrison after nearly 14 years at war. The Corps faces a steep drawdown requirement that is forcing many Marines out of the uniform against their will, while budget cuts mean smaller pay raises and less funding for training and base maintenance and development.
Dunford is well suited to lead the service during such a challenging time, Kent said, calling him a team builder with a keen understanding of the "balance" that's required when tough decisions must be made. The rank and file can trust that their quality of life always will be evaluated, he added. "That's because General Dunford has never forgotten where he came from, how he got to be a four-star," Kent said. "I've heard him say it: 'It was the warriors I had the honor and privilege of leading all these years.' He understand that no leader gets to this position all by himself or herself."
The Marines are also struggling to define the scope of their future mission. Plans for a "Pacific rebalancing" that would see the Marines embracing their amphibious roots have been coupled with a burgeoning crisis response requirement focused on embassy security and small-unit missions in hot spots around the globe. Most recently, the Marine Corps presented its new "EF-21" strategy, which focuses on modularity and independently functioning company-sized units, requiring amphibious connectors and vessels that the Corps does not yet posses.
Along with these changes, sources inside the Corps say individual morale has suffered under Amos, a non-infantry commandant who has overseen a number of unpopular policies and been beset by controversy and scandal over accusations related to his handling of the infamous scout sniper war zone urination incident.
This incident did touch Dunford, who as ACMC was named in a whistleblower complaint that alleged the commandant had attempted to tamper with justice. Dunford was also sent on Amos's behalf to fire Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser as the officer overseeing prosecution of the cases after Waldhauser refused to make sure the defendants were "crushed," another incident which has drawn accusations of unlawful command influence. It's possible this will be revisited during Dunford's confirmation hearing.
But largely Dunford has avoided stirring controversy on some of the pressing legal and political issues. As ACMC, he helped to oversee the launch of integrated infantry training for female Marine officers, in keeping with a mandate from the secretary of defense. He also worked to ensure alcohol-abuse treatment for Marines charged with DUIs and issued orders cracking down on hazing and other "high-risk behavior" to shore up unit cohesion.
As a grunt officer with significant experience in the two major combat theaters of the last decade, Dunford "will be a very welcome transition at a time when Marines needs to feel good about being Marines again," Weston, the former State Department official, said.
Retired Gen. Charles Krulak, 31st commandant, said Dunford would be well equipped to defend the Corps' interests by his executive experience in Washington, dating back to the 1990s when, as a lieutenant colonel, he served as an aide to then-commandant Gen. Carl. Mundy. He "possesses the unique combination of operational expertise, strategic thinking, and an understanding of how to negotiate the minefields that are sometimes found inside the Beltway," Krulak said.
How he'll lead
An easy conversationalist with a sharp wit that can crack up a dinner party, Dunford disarms those he meets with his unassuming demeanor, friends and colleagues said.
Despite the many profiles that have been written about him, he avoids press exposure and interviews. In his private life, he's a laid-back family man and fervent Catholic, but is nonetheless a huge fan of his hometown Red Sox who keeps baseball memorabilia in his office. Dunford reportedly once tasked an aide with monitoring Sox scores via BlackBerry and reporting back to him between meetings.
But Dunford's most memorable quality, and the one that best defines his leadership style, is his ability to keep cool under pressure. Dunford doesn't raise his voice, sources say. Ever.
The son of a Boston police officer, Dunford has the same disciplined "street fighter" sensibility, Marines who served with him say.
"I think he could juggle ping pong balls in a hurricane," said retired Brig. Gen. Thomas Draude, a former director of Marine Corps public affairs who has interacted with Dunford through his work as president of the Marine Corps University Foundation. "Joe is the guy who obviously fights smart."
That level-headedness, and his knack for assembling a group of people with differing views in the same room and drawing out the best insights from everyone, have defined his approach to leadership in the past. And while he hasn't attracted the sort of adulation among active-duty Marines that Mattis has, troops hailed his nomination, voicing approval for his combat record and his reputation for caring for Marines.
Maj. David Coté met him in July 2011, when then-ACMC Dunford presented then-Capt. Coté with Marine Corps Times' Marine of the Year recognition. Coté was selected for the award because of his selflessness. An avid volunteer, he spent hours educating Marines about their GI Bill benefits and helping homeless veterans find a fresh start. Dunford, Coté said, seemed particularly impressed by the young officer's decision to donate a kidney to his ailing father, and the four-star has kept tabs on him ever since.
"He taught me to be humble and to listen," Coté said. "And he taught me that giving back to the greater community matters."
Important decisions ahead
Officials have not announced who may be nominated to serve under Dunford as assistant commandant. It's a choice with added significance: it's widely discussed in the Pentagon that Dunford may be tapped as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the current chairman, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, retires next year. And if that happens, the ACMC could step up to lead the Corps.
Potential candidates for that position likely include Kelly and several highly qualified three-stars. Names frequently mentioned in connection with the position are Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey, head of Marine Plans, Policies and Operations; Lt. Gen. John Toolan, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, head of Marine Corps Forces Command, and Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, director for operations plans and joint force development, J-7, with the Joint Staff. All except for Bailey have commanded a Marine Expeditionary Force, typically a stepping stone to a more senior office.
It's also possible the current ACMC Gen. John Paxton could remain at his post as the commandancy changes hands. While historically assistant commandants have not served longer than two or three years, their terms are often staggered, allowing an experienced ACMC to assist a new commandant in learning the job.
If confirmed, Dunford will have to choose a sergeant major, a choice may prove an indicator of his leadership philosophy. But Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett may remain at his post for several months after Dunford takes command, in accordance with a tradition that began in 2003 with Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Al McMichael and continued with Barrett's predecessor, Kent.
Barrett told Marine Corps Times he is "standing ready." Dunford, he said, "is a superb and faithful Marine. We are fortunate he has chosen to wear the cloth of this nation."
For now, Dunford is focused on keeping the momentum of the ISAF campaign on track, said his spokesman, Lt. Col. Eric Dent. Asked for comment on his nomination, Dunford sent a brief reply that lived up to his humble, down-to-earth reputation. "The only one I can be sure will say something nice about me is my mother," he said. "And she's offline right now."