Commandant Gen. Robert Neller (Col ’75) calls the University of Virginia a place that inspires him to this day. He sat down with Virginia Magazine for an interview that ranged from his experiences on Grounds to current difficulties.
Neller, who grew up in Michigan, says he applied to UVA because his mother became enamored of the school, even though it meant he had to keep his grades up in his senior year of high school. But he thrived at UVA, joining the Theta Chi fraternity and balancing club rugby with academic demands—or, as he says, becoming “the poster child for ‘If you go to class and read your readings, you study for tests, you can get a B.’”
Neller gave this interview at a historically challenging time for the Marine Corps—after a mandate, over the Corps’ own recommendations, to open all combat jobs to women. He defends a 2015 Corps study assessing women’s capabilities in combat that has come under heavy criticism for its methodology. He details how he is grappling with that integration, and he opens up about watching enemy forces retake territory the Marines fought hard to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. The following are excerpts of and summaries from the discussion.
On his time at UVA
“It was an interesting time. ... Vietnam was going on. We were [one of] the first class[es] that had women in the College. We didn’t have to wear a coat and tie to class. So you know, heresy, revolution: women, and no coat and tie. But you know, it was like it is now. Sunday through Thursday was very serious. You did your work, you went to class. Friday and Saturday night, people had a good time.
“You were around very motivated and goal-oriented people, who were the majority of my fraternity brothers—they’ve all done really well. They are all really smart. They were all involved in sports. So when you are involved in sports, even in intramurals and club sports, you know there is leadership, there’s discipline, there’s dedication. So the Marine Corps was a very similar experience.”
On what he found most meaningful at UVA
“I think when you go to the University of Virginia, you learn early on about the history, the legacy of Mr. Jefferson and the University. Just when you walk to class and you are walking down the Lawn and you are going toward Old Cabell Hall and you go past the Rotunda and you see the rooms on the Lawn and the different pavilions—I just always thought that was really cool. You felt like you were at a place of learning.
“I think going to Virginia turned out to be coincidentally—other than marrying the woman I married—maybe the best decision I ever made. Because I got a good education and made lifelong friends. Along the way, you develop a habit of study and reading. Every day I try to learn something. I still read a lot.”
On the Marine Corps’ plan to integrate women into combat roles and criticism that the Marines set women up to underperform
“We’ve got a plan. … It involves recruiting. It involves testing and standards. It involves creating conditions so that—assuming that there are women who want to do this and can meet the standard, which I know there are—they are going to have every opportunity to be successful.
“Part of any leader’s responsibility is for everyone they work with to be successful. Why would I want anyone in the Marine Corps to fail? You ever met anybody and you ask them why they joined the Marine Corps, and they say ‘I joined the Marine Corps to fail’? No, they joined the Marine Corps to succeed.
“What we do for the country is kind of important. We cannot not be successful.”
On the testing the Corps conducted before requesting an exemption from a mandate to integrate combat roles
When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued his order to integrate women into combat roles, the Corps conducted an unprecedented evaluation of 200 qualifying volunteer female Marines who went to combat infantry schools for the first time and then trained for four months in infantry and specialty roles that have been exclusively male. When asked about criticisms of the study, Neller defends its conclusions and says his job is to make the best Marine Corps using the best people for every job.
“When [former U.S. Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta made his decision in January 2013 that by January 2016 there would be no more gender-related restrictions to assignments to units [or occupational specialties], the Marine Corps went on a very deliberate, measured, thoughtful path to take a look at this.
“We started sending female Marines who volunteered to go to an infantry training battalion. We’d never done that.
“Nothing like this had ever been done in the military history of the world. And then we looked at the results and we made a recommendation. Because Mr. Panetta also said if the service chief wanted to request an exception to the change in this policy, it had to be based on data, not just opinion. So based on the data—and based on looking at it through overall effectiveness of the force, health and welfare of all the Marines, and the best use of talent and human capital, we requested an exception. [Current U.S. Defense] Secretary [Ashton] Carter said there will be no exception. And he said give me your plan for implementation. So here we are.”
On a new conflict over integrating men and women in boot camp
New recruits are divided into single-sex platoons that sleep in open squad bays. The units train together 60 percent of the time.
“They are not being segregated. See, it’s counterintuitive. Because you see anything separate as not equal. The objective of this whole thing is to advantage them and give them an opportunity to find their place and be focused on being a Marine.
“They live in open squad bays and I can’t change the biology and physiology that exists between us. I don’t want to. OK, look. I want more women in the Marine Corps. We are going to have more women in the Marine Corps. Women make us a better Marine Corps. But … I have an obligation to put them in a position where they can be most effective and most successful to support the mission. We are a team. I am the head coach. You are one of my players. I want to put you in a position where you can best help the team. So if there are women that want to be in the ground combat units, and they decide to go do that, then they are going to have that opportunity.”
On the future of the Marine Corps
“Even though the character of war is going to change, the nature of war is the same. And the nature of war is the two adversaries, each trying to impose their will on the other. Before, it was a very physical contest on a battlefield. Now that contest takes place in cyber, it takes place in space. It takes place in the air, on the land and the sea. So the things that Marines are going to have to do in the future are different than what they have done in the past and what they are doing today. So will we still need people to fly airplanes and do logistics and do intelligence and people to do communications and people to drive a vehicle or drive an armored vehicle or be in the infantry? Yes. The question is how much of the force needs to do that. Right now, as we speak, down in [U.S. Marine Corps Base] Quantico there’s a group of Marines from all over the Marine Corps that are sitting down to answer that question. … I can speculate that they are going to come back and say we are going to need more people involved in information warfare, more people involved in electronic warfare, cyber, intelligence, deception, communications, flying unmanned systems—things like that."
On fighting to retake ground in Iraq and Afghanistan that a few years ago Marines died to win
“To any Marine I would say: ‘Hey look. You did your mission. You should be proud of what you did. And those that we lost there, they gave their last full measure to make us successful.’ … We still have U.S. forces in those places. There are still Marines in Iraq. They are focused on being successful again, and I have no doubt that they will.
“Somebody asked me that when I left Iraq nine years ago ... ‘What would you tell the families?’ I was really tired. I got all emotional and I said, ‘I’d tell them they did their duty.’ I hated that answer because it sounded just so inadequate.
“What I really wish I’d said was, ‘Imagine we live in a country where if people were called to go do something like this nobody would stand up. Imagine if there were not men and women who would pick up the challenge and go to a faraway land to help somebody live a better life. That would be terrible.’ So I would tell the parents, ‘Thank you for raising such a great child that was willing to do this. Thanks for being such a good teammate and for being part of this effort, because as long as the United States has people willing to do that, we will continue to be the greatest place on the face of the Earth.’”
On his best UVA memory
Neller tells of competing for rugby’s Commonwealth Cup in 1975, something UVA had never won. He was the backup player for an absent star. With just seconds remaining, Neller faced a difficult conversion kick that could tie the score. His teammates had already walked off the field in defeat; the other team had already started celebrating.
“I picked a spot in front of the goal post and I said a little prayer. ... And I kicked. And it was one of those kind of like The Natural moments where you hit the ball and it goes. It made a sound like ‘thoomp’ and I swear to God the ball went up—this is true, it’s documented—the ball went up and it reached its apogee right in front of the goal and it started to lose momentum because it was beyond my range. And this gust of wind hit the ball and it went right through the middle of the goal posts.
“My teammates didn’t even know it. They were off the field. And I am running around and I went, ‘HEY! I MADE THE KICK! IT’S OVERTIME!’ And they are like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I made the kick, you bastards. Get up!’ So then we went into overtime, we scored a goal, I made two more kicks and we won the match.
“You know that was my one moment of glory in an otherwise mediocre athletic career at the University of Virginia. So I still think about that from time to time when you think to yourself ‘Ah, this’ll never happen.’ It can happen.”