With the blessings of the two senior Pentagon officials, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly took charge of the Southern Command on Monday, then swiftly praised peace talks between Colombia and rebels as better than open warfare.
“Just the fact that they’re talking is a monumental indication of hope, I think,” Kelly told reporters within minutes of taking over at Southcom headquarters in Doral. “Anytime people are talking and not trying to kill each other, fight each other, is a good thing.”
The peace talks are being held in Havana following last month’s ceremonial start in Oslo, and Colombia’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), announced a unilateral ceasefire as a goodwill gesture.
The general was more circumspect in his reply to a question of whether he would see the United States establish relations with the Cuban military or see the prison camps closed at Guantánamo during his tenure here, which could last two or three years.
“That’s way, way, way, way above my pay grade,” said Kelly, noting he was awaiting specifics “of what the president and others” would ask of him.
Policy decisions are made in Washington, then put into action by the outpost here — a campus-style office complex where military planners, intelligence analysts and agents of other federal agencies oversee and coordinate U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The pay-grade remark, deflecting decision-making upward, is classic military-speak. But it was a bit ironic for Kelly, who just that day pinned on the fourth star of a full general officer — the most senior rank currently attainable in the U.S. military.
Kelly’s military career has actually spanned the ranks, or pay grades as they are called in the service — starting when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970. He left as a sergeant in 1972, went to college and then was commissioned as an infantry officer.
Kelly, 62, has commanded troops in Iraq, seen his two sons follow in his footsteps to the Corps, and lost one in warfare in Afghanistan. He most recently served as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s trusted senior military advisor.
Panetta praised Kelly as “the true embodiment of a citizen warrior — compassionate, caring and tough” during a quick stop Monday afternoon in South Florida.
Panetta presided and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said a few words during the hour-long ceremony that featured a flyover by F-16s from the Homestead Air Reserve Base and a new take on the traditional handover of authority: The retiring Southcom chief, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, pointedly passed control of the commander’s Blackberry to Kelly in the midst of the speech-making.
Fraser ended his 37-year military career as Southcom commander, a job he assumed in June 2009, six months before the event that Panetta called the most significant of his career here: Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, which required a massive U.S. government and international relief effort that was coordinated by Southcom.
It has not been unusual during Southcom’s decade-plus stay in South Florida for a secretary of defense to preside at a change of command. Donald Rumsfeld came to swear in both Army Gen. Bantz Craddock and Navy Adm. James Stavridis when they took charge of Southcom. Both had been Rumsfeld aides.
But Panetta spoke with a fondness toward Kelly that was noteworthy for both its humor and intimacy after a week of uncomfortable news developments surrounding the infidelity of departed CIA director and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and an ongoing investigation of another active-duty general’s behavior at the military’s Central Command in Tampa.
“There are few that you’d like to share a foxhole with, and John Kelly is one of those,” Panetta told an audience of about 300 community and military members.
“He’s always watched my back. And he’s always watched my glass,” said Panetta, indicating they have shared end-of-workday drinks together.
Kelly, for his part, kept his comments short, singled out for thanks a disabled veteran in the audience then ended the event with the two words that made clear a Marine was back in charge at Southcom: “ Semper Fidelis.”