Neller, 62, now serves as commander of Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, where he oversees deployment planning and execution and East Coast Marine bases. He also commands Marine Corps Forces Europe.
A 40-year Marine infantry officer, Neller has seen operational experience during wartime and peace, with deployments to Iraq, Somalia and Panama.
At a press event where the nomination was made official, Carter praised the "phenomenal" capabilities of Keller.
"Bob is a warrior. He's a leader. He's a statesman," Carter said, noting that the two worked closely together when Carter was deputy secretary and Neller was the director of operations, the J-3, for the joint staff.
"We traveled together in the theater and around this country, where I saw Bob's outstanding relationship with the troops," Carter said. "He loves them. He relates to them. And they light up when he talks to them."
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller has been picked to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps, according to a defense department official.
The future leadership of the Marine Corps has been a mystery since early May, when Dunford was nominated to succeed retiring Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford, who became commandant in October, recently began implementing a series of reforms aimed at creating a more mature and balanced Marine Corps with better-educated enlisted leaders.
If confirmed, Neller will come to the commandancy with an extensive resume of operational and administrative experience, including joint positions overseas. He previously served as commander of Marine Corps Central Command, overseeing Marine operations in the Middle East; as president of Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia; as the director for Headquarters Marine Corps Plans, Policies and Operations out of the Pentagon; and as the deputy commanding general for operations for I Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq from 2005 to 2007.
He has also participated in lesser-known Marine Corps operations, including a deployment to Somalia in support of operation "Restore Hope" with 3rd Light Armored Infantry Battalion, and two deployments to Panama as the commanding officer of Marine Corps Security Force Company in support of the U.S. deposition of dictator Manuel Noriega in operations "Just Cause" and "Promote Liberty."
The nomination is, nonetheless, an unexpected choice for the post of commandant. Neller was chosen over the Corps' two other four-star generals, Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, and Gen. John "Jay" Paxton, now assistant commandant.
The decision, which is typically made with input from the current commandant and defense and Navy secretaries, may signal a desire to capitalize on Neller's experience working with naval counterparts in his current post at MARFORCOM as the Marine Corps embraces new seabasing concepts and a closer partnership with the Navy.
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, shown here as commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command, will be the next commandant of the Marine Corps.
Photo Credit: Cpl James D. Pauly/Marine Corps
If Neller is confirmed by the Senate and takes the helm of the Marine Corps in late summer or early fall, he could be responsible for making high-profile decisions tied to opening ground combat fields to women.
Marine Corps analysts are in the process of compiling a dense and detailed report about the prospect in accordance with a directive from the Office of the Secretary of Defense that takes effect on the first of next year. Based on the report, which draws from data collected in a recently completed 10-month experiment in which a gender-integrated Marine task force accomplished combat tasks, the commandant may request that some fields remain closed to women.
Neller, who sources say is known for his blunt and direct communication style, has not commented publicly on the topic of women in infantry roles.
According to a command philosophy letter he published after his arrival at MARFORCOM, his priorities include professional education for Marines; ethical behavior, including a zero-tolerance policy for hazing and racial and gender-based discrimination; and professional fulfillment.
"I ask you to share your ideas and problems with me — maybe I can help implement your proposals or provide some insight into possible solutions," he wrote in the letter. "... I will ask you to work as long and as hard as it takes to accomplish the mission — no longer and no harder."
Neller also spearheaded a campaign this year aimed at rooting out alcohol abuse in the ranks, asking troops to protect each other and safeguard their own careers by exercising moderation.
A date for Neller's confirmation hearing before the Senate has not yet been set, but the hearing will likely take place later this month.
Those go along with the nominations of Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Gen. Paul Selva, the head of US Transportation Command, as the vice chairman.
Experts say the sheer amount of turnover for the Joint Chiefs is giving Carter — who is expected to leave office when the next administration takes over in 2017 — a nearly unprecedented opportunity to install leaders who share his goals into top positions.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.