Early in the military career of recently retired Marine Gen. David Berger, he and his wife, Donna, whom he had met when they were in sixth grade, made a promise to each other.
The young officer would get out of the Corps if he ever had three bad days in a row, he told reporters at the Modern Day Marine conference in Washington June 28.
That never happened.
“Why did I stay? The people,” Berger said. Marines will do anything to help each other, he said.
After 42 years as a Marine, he retired from the Corps on July 10, leaving his position as commandant of the Marine Corps.
Once a young man from rural Woodbine, Maryland, who didn’t meet a Marine until college, Berger joined the Corps in the contentious wake of the Vietnam War and ended up retiring as the top United States Marine.
From 2019 to until July, Berger led the proudest, and perhaps toughest, U.S. military branch — and changed it more than it had been changed in decades.
The “warrior-scholar,” as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently termed Berger, took the helm two years after his predecessor declared the Corps unready for a war with a peer adversary.
In 2020, he published and began executing a plan that he hoped would get the service up to speed. In response came extraordinary public criticism of his plan from some of the most respected retired Marine generals, who had led the Corps for much of Berger’s career.
When pressed about his critics, Berger has insisted he bears them no rancor, even as he has expressed “surprise” at their lack of trust.
His critics have expressed a sense that the now-retired commandant hasn’t listened to their concerns about changes to the force.
But some who have spent time around Berger, from his college lacrosse teammate to the secretary of defense, see him as a leader defined by his very ability to listen, and then act decisively on what he has heard.
Retired Marine Col. Bob Work, former deputy secretary of defense, said, “If you take a look at all of the service chiefs since the end of the Cold War, in my view, he’s the one that has been the boldest and has demonstrated the most moral courage doing what he thought had to be done.”
42 years as a Marine
Berger entered the Naval ROTC program at New Orleans’ Tulane University in 1977 because it would pay for college, he said June 28.
Just two years after the end of the Vietnam War, he faced skepticism from peers and adults alike for his decision to join the military, he noted in a Dallas Morning News op-ed in January.
A Marine gunnery sergeant who taught the midshipmen may have been the first Marine he’d ever met, Berger recalled at the Modern Day Marine roundtable.
Seeing the way the gunny spoke and carried himself, and the way others responded to him, the teenage Berger decided, “I have no idea what that is, but that’s what I want to do.”
He switched from the Navy track to the Marine one.
At Tulane, Berger majored in engineering and played competitive club lacrosse, on top of his NROTC responsibilities.
Retired Navy Capt. Steve Jordon — a longtime friend of Berger and a former NROTC classmate and lacrosse teammate — said the young midshipman remained “well-centered” despite his packed schedule.
He was a good friend, easy to talk to and the kind of person who others relied on to make sure that collegiate revelry didn’t cross any boundaries it shouldn’t, according to Jordon. The retired Navy captain has fond memories of Berger driving him and other lacrosse teammates to away games in his souped-up Mustang.
“Whether it’s a new friend, an old friend, or in his current life with him interacting with Marines and other service members across the globe — when he’s face-to-face with you, he really cares about your opinion and what you think about things,” Jordon said. “I think that’s that quiet leadership that he’s been so successful at.”
After graduating from Tulane, Berger became an infantry officer and recon Marine.
The same year, he married Donna.
“This is my soulmate,” he said at his retirement ceremony July 10. “We have been married 42 years. She could certainly trade up — I don’t have that option.”
Berger went on to command Marines on deployments to Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan as he worked his way up through the ranks of the Corps, according to his official bio.
“I can’t imagine a career that’s flat,” he said. “When you’re a Marine, your life is like this.”
He moved his hand through the air like a sine wave. “I love that part.”
The highs, like the rush of combat, and the lows, like knocking on the doors of families to bring them news of a death, are more extreme than he can describe to those outside the military, he said.
From 2016 to 2018, he served as the commander of Marine forces in the Indo-Pacific, where the military’s focus has shifted in recent years as America’s wars in the Middle East have ended.
Berger’s last assignment before pinning on a fourth star as commandant in 2019 was as the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, which develops and implements the very concepts at the center of Force Design.
Change and pushback
From his first year as commandant in 2019, Berger championed sweeping change in the Corps.
His aim was to prepare the service for a fight against a technologically sophisticated adversary, in particular the Chinese military.
Force Design 2030, as his initiative is called, has entailed scrapping tanks, cutting the number of troops, emphasizing reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, and renewing the Corps’ focus on amphibious warfare after decades of combat with insurgencies in the Middle East.
The changes outraged a cadre of former Marine leaders. Retired generals penned dozens of op-eds in protest and appealed to Congress and the Pentagon behind the scenes to halt the changes.
One common criticism of the redesign was that focusing on China as an adversary would limit Marines’ ability to respond to threats elsewhere.
Marine officials have insisted the force also will be better prepared to face other adversaries.
Some critics contend that divestments of tanks, aviation assets and most cannon artillery would leave the force ill-prepared for the realities of combat, even if those cuts “might look good in a computerized war game at Quantico,” Virginia, as Marine veteran and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
A Marine official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said in a text message to Marine Corps Times, “The most vocal of them have created an illusion that they speak for most or all retired Marine Corps general officers. That is false. I can say with high confidence that notable retired Marines have told these ringleaders that ‘they do not speak for them’ and must stop alluding to it.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a vocal member of the group of retired Marines opposing Force Design, said he was unsure how many retired generals were active in the self-titled “Chowder II” because there was no roster, but he said the number was “certainly in the hundreds.”
“Those of us who identify as members of Chowder Society II are looking forward towards a new Marine Corps and not at a commandant who in four years destroyed the Corps it took some 30 years to build,” Van Riper said via email.
“We want to support the 39th commandant when he takes the helm and work to get the Corps back on track,” he said.
Berger has insisted that war games and experimentation back up the Force Design concepts, a claim that itself garnered public skepticism from his critics.
“I can always do better at communicating,” Berger said at a Defense One event March 16, when asked about his biggest mistakes as commandant. “I think early on, I talked a great deal about the things that would need to change in the Marine Corps. What I should have done is balance that with, ‘These are the things that will not change in the Marine Corps.’”
He added that a regret, though not a mistake, is the pace of force modernization: If he could speed it up, he would.
Berger has sought to revamp other aspects of the Corps, too, including personnel policy, logistics operations, and training and education.
But some of the least resource-intensive changes under Berger made the biggest waves.
In 2020, Berger banned Confederate-flag symbols from public display on Marine bases.
Berger’s predecessor as commandant, retired Gen. Robert Neller, said in the weeks after that he will regret for as long as he lives his own failure to put in place such a ban.
The following year, the Marine Corps loosened the tattoo policy to allow full sleeves once again.
Berger also was in charge of the Marine Corps when COVID-19 first arrived on scene, through the rollout of the vaccine and the contentious vaccine mandate, which the Corps enforced the most zealously of the services.
In the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, the Marine Corps continued training recruits and holding field exercises even as some Marines worried that it was unsafe to do so, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
“We train so that we can be ready to go,” Berger said in April 2020. “We never get the chance to pick the next crisis, where it happens, when it happens.”
That next crisis came in August 2021, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban as U.S. troops departed the country after two decades of war.
Thirteen U.S. service members, including 11 Marines, died in a bombing at the chaotic Kabul airport, where troops were helping evacuate Afghan and American civilians.
Asked June 28 about lessons learned from the conflict, Berger said it would take time before the military could figure those out.
“Some things are too close, too personal, too near-term to really be objective about and look back and go, ‘OK, in the bigger scheme of things, what did we learn?’” he told reporters.
In his final year as commandant, Berger found the Marine Corps at odds with the rest of the Defense Department on funding priorities. He had long made it clear: The Corps needed at least 31 amphibious warships.
But the Office of the Secretary of Defense in March announced a budget request that would allow the Navy’s amphibious fleet to drop below that number.
Berger’s approach: Don’t publicly malign DoD leadership, yet remain firm.
“Thirty-one is the bare minimum,” he said at the National Press Club event the day after the proposed budget was announced. “We can’t do with any less.”
In Work’s eyes, Berger’s ability to thread the needle with both the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress on the amphib issue is one example of the “tremendous” leadership he has shown as commandant.
Berger often would ask the young majors on his staff about their experiences with and opinions about the Corps, Austin noted in a speech July 10.
His approach has been to listen carefully to what others think, examine the results of experimentation and war games, and then make a decision, according to Work.
“And once he comes to a decision, he says, ‘OK, let’s get on with it,’” Work said. “He doesn’t allow a lot of drama to get in the way.”
A Corps without a commandant
After four years as commandant, Berger was required by law to retire July 10.
What likely would have otherwise been a smooth handoff to Assistant Commandant Gen. Eric Smith, whom the White House nominated in May to succeed Berger, was marred by one senator’s blockade on military nominations.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, has single-handedly held up confirmation for hundreds of senior military nominees in protest of a Pentagon policy that makes it easier for troops to get out-of-state abortions.
Berger’s departure marked the first time the Marine Corps has been left without a Senate-confirmed leader in more than a century. Smith, as the second-in-command, assumed the role of acting commandant upon Berger’s retirement at Marine Barracks Washington.
Smith already has pledged to press on with Berger’s Force Design vision, and even to accelerate it as the budget allows.
Berger has said he plans to spend time in retirement with Donna, his four sons and his grandchildren; according to Austin’s speech, Berger enjoys riding four-wheelers on his farm with his grandkids.
He will wait a few months before he says yes to other opportunities, but he indicated he wants to give back and, perhaps, make money.
Standing beneath the sun on the parade field at the Marine Barracks on his retirement day, Berger devoted most of his last speech as commandant to thanking his family and the Marines who served alongside him.
“I’ve tried my best to make sure the Marine Corps is ready today and also ready five, 10 years from now,” Berger said.
Did his voice catch? If it did, it was only for a moment.
“Where we have succeeded, all the credit goes to all of the Marines around the world who are trying things, experimenting,” he continued. “They’re pushing us into the future. Where we’ve come up short, that’s on me.”
Defense News reporter Megan Eckstein contributed reporting.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.