Outgoing head of Marine Corps Reserve reflects on tenure

by Vern Evans

Lt. Gen. David Bellon has commanded Marine Forces Reserve since 2019.

The 35-year Marine veteran first served on active-duty until 1997 when he joined the Reserve and returned to active duty for four combat tours supporting both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

He will relinquish command on March 21 to Lt. Gen. Leonard F. Andreson IV.

Bellon spoke with Marine Corps Times recently about changes in the Reserve over the nearly five years of his tenure.

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What was going on in the Marine Corps Reserve when you took over in 2019?

A: We had reached our final confirmation of size and unit orientation post-OEF and post-OIF. OEF was still going on, we still had reservists there but we were no longer sending battalions or squadrons on a regular basis. But the Reserve had finished its large-scale mobilization and support.

I was in the Reserve before 9/11 and I can tell you as a reservist how it changed the landscape.

After 9/11 we emptied the cupboard, there were about 25,000 Marines that got put on orders to deploy. Over the next decade we averaged thousands of Marines forward deployed. It was sustained contribution at an exceptionally high rate.

The hardest thing we do in the Reserve is to make senior officers and staff NCOs legitimate in their rank. How are they able to jump into a time of crisis or contingency and function legitimately at that rank? By the end of that sustained commitment of the Reserve for over 10 years you had an entire generation of leaders that went back two-three-four-five times or more into combat and now you’ve got senior leaders in the Reserve component just like on the active component who are very seasoned and credible in their rank.

Q: Only two months before you took over, former Commandant Gen. David Berger had taken office and released his planning guidance, which foreshadowed Force Design 2030 and major change to the Corps. How did that affect the Reserve?

A: The whole thing was heavily pointed at countering China. And so, the early days of force design were immediately relevant to III Marine Expeditionary Force and very relevant to I MEF but there wasn’t a lot of narrative committed to the service retained force, which is II MEF and the Reserves. So, II MEF and the Reserve are kind of left out, so to speak, not intentionally, but only because the problem set was so wicked when it came to what we were going to have to do. There wasn’t much bandwidth to do a lot of advanced thinking about the service-retained force.

Initially, the thought about the Reserve was that there was a lot of excess capacity that wasn’t going to be relevant. Because one of the thoughts was when a conflict starts in the Pacific how would you get all these forces into the Pacific? And that was proven incorrect because we weren’t thinking globally, and we were only thinking in terms of conflict and not in competition.

So, we began to think about our role around the globe as a contingency and crisis response force and that really informs the future of the Reserve.

Q: What have been some changes to recruiting and retaining Marine reservists?

A: It used to be if you had a Marine for 10 years the assumption was you would have them for 20. But with blended retirement it’s like a 401(k), so just as likely to leave you at year 14 as at year four. So, we’re competing with companies like Ford Motor Company and Google, they all want the same talent. And we were unintentionally messaging within the active component that the only real way to serve as a Marine was on active-duty. So, if you decided to get out, you were treated like a less than. And there wasn’t a seamless way to go from the active to the Reserve and retain that talent. There also wasn’t an easy way to go from Reserve back to active. We looked at the data and saw that once Marines were in the Individual Ready Reserve status, they were much less likely to consider Reserve service. So, we’ve used our direct affiliation program, which links Marines leaving active-duty with Reserve slots and we’ve seen in just a couple of years much higher rates of Marines going directly to the Reserve and staying longer.

Q: How did the innovation unit in the Reserve come about?

A: For most of the time in the Reserve we thought very traditionally, say a reservist was a master mechanic as a civilian then that Marine should be in the motor pool. But what we learned was many of our reservists had developed mastery in other fields, particularly emerging fields. So, we developed the concept of the Marine Innovation Unit, which uses reservists with emerging or difficult-to-find skills such as cyber, automation, machine learning to address Marine Corps problems working with the Marine Warfighting Lab.

We thought that if it went really well, we’d get 100 applicants for the 300 positions. Well, there were thousands of applicants. And hundreds of highly qualified applicants. One of the solutions they produced was the Marine Corps decided to cut two Reserve amphibious assault companies. The conclusion was that what the Corps was lacking was maritime mobility in the littorals. So, they came up with a plan using the existing companies and funding from Congress that didn’t affect the Marine Corps budget for these two companies to help develop doctrine inside this littoral space for finding and holding targets at risk and sustaining those Marines.

Q: You initially commanded both the Reserve and Marine Forces North. But the Corps moved MARFORNORTH to another command and replaced it with MARFORSOUTH, which you previously commanded. How has that changed things for the Reserve?

A: When I was at MARFORSOUTH for the first time in 2017 it was obvious that MARFORSOUTH and the Reserve were natural partners. The nation needed more Marine Corps presence in U.S. Southern Command as our pacing threats, China and Russia, were very active in the region. Without the sustained mission of the Global War on Terror how were we going to keep our best and brightest talent and retain it and then develop it for the next step? The sustained mission in Latin America was the perfect way to do that.

Marines will perform well at events such as the Integrated Training Exercise in Twentynine Palms, California. But if that’s all they do every year they’re probably going to lose interest. But if they get to do a deployment to Paraguay, Argentina, Chile or Honduras, they’re much more likely to stay.

And we get a firsthand look at how adaptable they are. It allows us to locate and evaluate them. If they excel, the reward is enhanced training and better missions going forward. And that’s where your battalion commanders and sergeants major come from. It helps us with talent management.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

Read the full article here

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