The Few, the Proud, the White: The Marine Corps Balks at Promoting Generals of Color

WASHINGTON — All things being equal, Col. Anthony Henderson has the military background that the Marine Corps says it prizes in a general: multiple combat tours, leadership experience and the respect of those he commanded and most who commanded him.

Yet three times he has been passed over for brigadier general, a prominent one-star rank that would put Colonel Henderson on the path to the top tier of Marine Corps leadership. Last year, the Navy secretary, Richard V. Spencer, even added a handwritten recommendation to Colonel Henderson’s candidacy: “Eminently qualified Marine we need now as BG,” he wrote.

But never in its history has the Marine Corps had anyone other than a white man in a senior leadership post. Colonel Henderson is Black.

“Tony Henderson has done everything you could do in the Marines except get a hand salute from Jesus Christ himself,” said Milton D. Whitfield Sr., a former Marine gunnery sergeant who served for 21 years.

Proud and fierce in their identity, the Marines have a singular race problem that critics say is rooted in decades of resistance to change. As the nation reels this summer from protests challenging centuries-long perceptions of race, the Marines — who have long cultivated a reputation as the United States’ strongest fighting force — remain an institution where a handful of white men rule over 185,000 white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian men and women.

“It took an act of Congress last year to get them to integrate by gender at the platoon level,” said Representative Anthony G. Brown, Democrat of Maryland and a former Army helicopter pilot. “And now they continue to hold onto that 1950s vision of who Marines are.”

Current and former Marine Corps officials point to Colonel Henderson’s personality as an explanation for why he has been passed over, including what they call his tendency to speak his mind — traits that have not disqualified white Marine colonels.

Since the Marines first admitted African-American troops in 1942, the last military service to do so, only 25 have obtained the rank of general in any form. Not one has made it to the top four-star rank, an honor the Marines have bestowed on 72 white men. Six African-Americans reached lieutenant general, or three stars. The rest have received one or two stars, the majority in areas like logistics, aviation and transport, areas from which the Marine Corps does not choose its senior leadership.

Out of 60 Marine generals today, there are five African-American brigadier generals and one African-American major general.

ImageBlack Marine recruits receiving equipment at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in 1943. The Marines first admitted Black troops in 1942, the last military service to do so.
Credit…Corbis, via Getty Images

Charles F. Bolden Jr., who would go on to command two Space Shuttle missions before becoming the first African-American to lead NASA, received only two stars in the Marines.

To make it to four stars, a candidate needs combat postings in his background. (The pronoun “his” is apt because no woman has made it to four stars in the Marines, either). Such a leader would have commanded troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, bearing responsibility for the lives of Marines who shed blood in poppy fields, mountain ranges and desolate desert villages.

The Marine Corps made two exceptions to this only-combat-arms rule when it gave four stars to aviators: James F. Amos, in 2008, and Gary L. Thomas, in 2018. But both are white men.

It is difficult for those outside the armed services to understand the prestige that comes with becoming a four-star general or admiral. Four-star officers sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, oversee an entire branch of the armed services or serve as top officers of a regional command around the world — Centcom, for example, which supervises all American military operations in the Middle East. The commanders directly advise the defense secretary and the president.

For one week beginning Wednesday, the service’s promotion board will meet to consider its next group of generals. For the fourth time, Colonel Henderson’s is being deliberated. If he does not make it — the results will not be announced for months — his acquaintances say he is likely to leave the Marines.

Colonel Henderson declined to be interviewed for this article.

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Officially, the Marine Corps says it cares deeply about diversity.

“Only as a unified force, free from discrimination, racial inequality and prejudice, can we fully demonstrate our core values, and serve as the elite war-fighting organization America requires and expects us to be,” Gen. David H. Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, wrote on June 4 in a message to service members, in the wake of the protests that ignited after George Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis police.

Since the protests, senior Defense Department officials have begun an internal examination into how to increase the percentage of minority service members in its predominantly white officer corps. One of the steps Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has announced is to remove the photographs of officer candidates from promotion board hearings.

Over all, the military has long promoted itself as one of the most diverse institutions in the country. Indeed, about 43 percent of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty are people of color. But of the 42 most senior commanders in the military — those with four-star ranks in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — only two are Black: Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, and Gen. Michael X. Garrett, who leads the Army Forces Command. Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, whose father is a second-generation Japanese-American, leads the United States Cyber Command.

There is only one woman in the group: Gen. Maryanne Miller, the chief of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, who is white.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Marines have the worst diversity representation in their top ranks. In 2013, the branch released a photo of its six four-star generals, all gathered in desert camouflage at the commandant’s home at the Marine Barracks in Washington: John F. Kelly, Jim Mattis, Joseph F. Dunford Jr., James F. Amos, John R. Allen and John M. Paxton. The men are smiling as they hold their white Marine Corps coffee mugs.

All six have garnered respect across the political spectrum. But to Black Marines, the photo evokes a place where they do not belong.

“Look, I’m a dedicated Marine,” said Mr. Whitfield, the former gunnery sergeant. “But that photo makes me feel like they’re saying, ‘None of you all are good enough to get to the high levels of authority or leadership.’ And I’m ashamed.”

Senior Marine leaders, when questioned about diversity in the officer corps, say they know they have a problem.

“The Marine Corps actually has given this a great deal of thought because we have struggled” with the issue of diversity, said Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., one of three four-star Marine generals serving today. But in explaining the absence of anyone but white men in the top positions, Marine officials often first cite the small number of African-American Marines who go into combat arms, the area from which all but one four-star general have risen.

“We need to recognize that the bread and butter of the Marine Corps is combat arms,” said Brig. Gen. David A. Ottignon, the deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs. He declined to speak specifically about Colonel Henderson, 53, citing privacy and personnel concerns. He said 63 percent of African-Americans in the Marine Corps were in support areas like logistics and engineering, 22 percent were in aviation and only 15 percent were in combat arms.

Colonel Henderson is in combat arms.

“Tony’s got an incredible record — he should be a general officer,” said Paul J. Kennedy, a retired major general who led the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.

Credit…United States Marine Corps

The colonel was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1989. By 1994, he had a law degree from Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La., and was headed to be a staff judge advocate — a lawyer for the Corps.

But Colonel Henderson soon asked to move over to combat arms, a transition that Marines who know him said demonstrated that he wanted to fight with his men, bearing the risk and responsibility that accompany it.

Colonel Henderson moved through the ranks at a lightning pace. He was a rifle platoon commander and was promoted to captain six years after joining the Marines. Five years later, in 2000, he made major. Three years after that, he was leading Marines in Iraq as the “XO” — executive officer — for the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. After Iraq, Colonel Henderson was sent to Afghanistan.

Colonel Henderson “was hard not to like,” said Cpl. Josh Sams, who had the colonel as a battalion commander on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. To the Marine, then 22, Colonel Henderson stood out like an action figure. He did not spend his time barking at his Marines about grooming standards or attire and instead barked at them about how to stay alive.

At one point, Colonel Henderson challenged the entire battalion to a fight after a hazing episode in the barracks rippled through the ranks. Some of the Marines who reported to him called him “silverback,” a reference that is both complimentary and racist.

In an interview published in 2018 by Herocare, a benefits organization, Colonel Henderson spoke of commanding Marines in southern Afghanistan in the most vicious fighting he said he had ever seen.

As the commander of the First Battalion, Sixth Marine Division, Colonel Henderson had to come up with a plan to overrun a Taliban stronghold in the Garmsir District known as Jugroom Fort. It was defended by about 200 to 400 Taliban members who had been fighting the British in Helmand Province, a new flash point in the war.

Colonel Henderson led his Marines through three days of intense battle in blistering heat. By the end, the Taliban fighters withdrew toward Pakistan. It was a short-lived victory for the American-led NATO troops in Afghanistan, and for Colonel Henderson’s Marines as well. The insurgent group would return in force in the following months, bloodying the influx of American troops deployed under President Barack Obama’s surge in late 2009.

“After all was said and done, 1,200 Marines went over and 1,198 came back. Only one killed by the enemy,” said Lance Cpl. Nathan Leggs, a machine-gunner under Colonel Henderson in Garmsir. “BBC News reported we pushed 170 firefights in the first 35 days. His plan of attack kept us alive throughout all of those battles.”

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In 2012, four years after serving under Colonel Henderson, Corporal Sams, then on his third deployment, stepped on a roadside bomb in Helmand Province. The bomb took both of his legs and two fingers. Two months later, he woke up in his bed in the intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in suburban Washington, and saw Colonel Henderson, alone, standing over him.

Corporal Sams, on a heavy dose of painkillers, was shocked that his former commander had come to visit. “I couldn’t believe he remembered me,” Corporal Sams said. His head was itching and he could not reach to scratch it, so Colonel Henderson did so for him.

“You’re one of my warriors,” Colonel Henderson told him, before leaving his hospital room.

Colonel Henderson’s career in the Marine Corps had in the meantime proceeded at a brisk pace, as he carried out one high-profile assignment after another. When he received command of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2014, the prevailing wisdom in the Corps — especially among African-Americans — was that here, finally, was a Black Marine who was going to make it to the top.

Except it didn’t happen. Once he was within sight of his first star, Marine officials started saying that Colonel Henderson was difficult to work with. There is nothing in Colonel Henderson’s official record that suggests that, according to interviews with white, Black and Asian Marine officers. But in the corridors outside promotion board conference rooms, that was accepted as conventional wisdom.

“The consensus was that Tony had to sand off the rough edges,” said retired Col. Thomas Hobbs, who was at amphibious warfare school with Colonel Henderson and who spoke with people involved in Colonel Henderson’s last promotion board. “Which is code for ‘he’s too Black, in my opinion.’ ”

Many African-American Marine officers believe that to succeed in the Marines, Black officers must find a way to tell white officials what they want to hear. Those who do, they say, are seen favorably.

By all accounts, Colonel Henderson does not do that.

“Tony is a straight shooter, who says what he thinks,” said Mr. Whitfield, the retired gunnery sergeant who went on to self-publish a book this year called “African-American Senior Marine Corps Leadership: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.” “And that is what they are fearful of.”

Credit…United States Marine Corps

The retired Marine recruiter, Mr. Kennedy, who is white, echoed that view. “The things not in his record,” are what have kept Colonel Henderson from getting that star, he said in an interview. “I think weak souls do not hold up against Tony Henderson. The guy is smart, forceful, not a braggart, but when you are in his presence, he is very confident, and probably withering to certain people, and they feel intimidated.”

Black Marines point to what they consider an uneven standard when it comes to promotions for white Marine officers compared with their African-American counterparts.

Brig. Gen. Rick A. Uribe, who is white, is up for promotion next month to major general, despite a rebuke in 2018 for treating his aide like a personal servant while he was deployed in Iraq.

That year, the Pentagon’s inspector general reported that General Uribe violated ethics rules when he requested or allowed his aide to pick up his laundry, deliver meals, arrange for delivery of his prescription toothpaste to Iraq and handle his personal correspondence. On multiple occasions, General Uribe also ordered her to stand next to gym equipment to reserve it for his use, sometimes making her wait up to 40 minutes.

To get ahead in the Marines, many Black senior officers “have to adjust themselves in a way that’s nonthreatening to whites,” said Mr. Hobbs, the retired Marine colonel.

“Tony doesn’t do that,” Mr. Hobbs said. “He’s just a proud Black guy.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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