Generally Speaking

Following four decades of military service, General Robert Neller receives an official order that changes the course of his life.

May 2, 2016  | 5 min read

After 40 years of dedicated service in the United States Marine Corps (USMC), general Robert Neller (MA ’81) was looking forward to retiring from the military. That is, until last summer, when president Barack Obama nominated Neller as the 37th commandant of the USMC, the highest ranking position within that particular branch of the armed forces.

The United States Senate confirmed the president’s nomination shortly thereafter, and the former lieutenant general officially began the new chapter of his military career on September 24, 2015. He describes his new role as “unexpected” and “not part of my plan,” but says the selection and subsequent offer was one he could not refuse.

Neller’s decades-long career within the USMC was also due to an unexpected turn of events. Though his original plan while in college was to become an attorney, that dream was cut short when he was not accepted to the law school of his choice. He was also suddenly and heavily burdened by the financial pressures of continuing his education when his parents, in the midst of separation, were facing their own financial concerns and were no longer able to cover his tuition expenses.

Neller also planned to start his own family around this time and knew he needed a job to support his growing brood. He signed up for the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School with his college roommate in search of a new opportunity.

“We both went, and we both completed it,” Neller remembers. “The Marine Corps offered us a commission, and we took it. The plan was to do this for about three years, and then figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

General Robert Neller - Pepperdine Magazine Photo By: Sgt. Ricardo Hurtado

This new journey also introduced Neller to the human resources management program at Pepperdine University while living in San Diego, California.

“Pepperdine had a program that was really innovative at the time,” he recalls. “They offered courses that primarily targeted military service members, and they had campuses at a lot of major military installations. There were a lot of people [in the program]: Marines, sailors, a few Department of Defense civilians, and people that still had their original GI Bill benefit that they were using to take courses.”

Neller still remembers the rigorous academic routine required of Pepperdine military students, including a class schedule that took up most of his time Thursday through Sunday, 11 times per semester, for a total of 22 weeks. After completing course work, he passed an eight-hour exam and earned his master’s degree.

“It was not what I would call an easy curriculum ... so you had to want to get your degree,” he recalls.

Neller shares that the education he received at Pepperdine provided him with the necessary knowledge and training to become a lifelong leader. Thinking back to the curriculum that focused heavily on psychology and communication, he reveals that “a lot of it was leadership, and when you’re in the military, you’re kind of in the leadership business.”

Fast-forward 35 years and Neller’s leadership skills are still actively and effectively being utilized to serve the nation in various ways, primarily focusing on recruitment in an effort to continue to keep the USMC strong. As he explains, “We’re a very young force. About 60 percent of the Marine Corps is under the age of 25. We also have the lowest percentage of officers who enlisted. It’s a physically demanding life, which I think is the part that appeals to most people that want to be Marines. They want to be challenged. So we’ve got to continue to recruit and retain.”

Training the recruits is another major priority for the general, referring to the USMC reputation of being America’s force in readiness. “We have to continue to train hard, and be ready to go where the nation needs us to go, and do what the nation needs us to do. We are, by law and by heritage, a naval force, so we have to work with our navy shipmates and use the sea, and come off ships to do our business, whether it be a combat mission or humanitarian assistance.”

Neller also understands the importance of utilizing modern technology to stay on top of his game. He emphasizes that since the tools and devices that we rely on every day change so frequently, it is crucial to keep up with the latest advancements.

General Robert Neller - Pepperdine Magazine Photo by: Staff Sgt. Gabriela Garcia

He reveals that protecting the safety of the citizens of our country is of utmost priority. “There are people out there that, for a variety of reasons, don’t like our way of life or don’t like things about us, and want to potentially do us harm. So part of the mission is to make sure that people that live in this country can be safe and live the lives that they are authorized to live under the Constitution of the United States.”

Throughout a typical workday, Neller’s schedule involves seeing Marines and attending staff meetings that allow participants to submit policies and ideas. During “testimony season” this past March, Neller met with members of Congress to discuss various aspects of the Marine Corps, such as the budget.

The Marine Corps has also been involved in historic military modifications this year, since secretary of defense Ashton Carter has recently opened all previously closed occupations and units to women. The USMC conducted research to determine how it might integrate all qualified Marines into those previously closed military occupational specialties.

“We did a big evaluation of the assignment of female Marines to previously restricted units,” Neller explains. “We made our recommendation with the Secretary of Defense, and he decided that there will no longer be any gender restrictions, so if you can meet the standard, you are allowed to try out for those particular occupations and those particular units. We are still in the beginning of the implementation of that.”

Neller also points out that current laws do not require women to have to register for the draft. “The discussion is, since there is no longer a restriction on females serving in certain occupational fields and in certain units—which was the legal reason given for them not being required to register for the draft in the past—should they now be required to register for the draft? That’s the question. And that’s a discussion that’s going to have to take place within the political realm, and among and with the American people.”

From his first few years in the Marine Corps to his time at Pepperdine, to serving both domestically and overseas in various capacities, Neller contends that every opportunity he has ever been presented with has, in some way, been interesting, challenging, and rewarding.

General Robert Neller - Pepperdine Magazine Photo by: Lance Cpl. Julio McGraw

Of all his accomplishments, he happily declares that his greatest achievements are his 40-year marriage and his three children. “I’m very, very proud of my family,” he says. “At the end of the day, that’s really what counts. I think we’re all proud of our service, being able to help people, and being able to contribute along the way, but also I’m a grandfather, so that’s pretty exciting.”

Neller expresses that although he never aspired to become commandant of the Marine Corps, “sometimes life picks you, but it’s a great honor and privilege, and I’m honored to be able to be a Marine for a few more years.”