CAMP FOSTER, OKINAWA, Japan -- Lt. Gen. John Wissler has been arguably the busiest man in the Marine Corps’ most active unit during the past two and a half years. In an area where approximately seventy percent of the world’s natural disasters occur, III Marine Expeditionary Force continually prepares and responds to events like the earthquake that ravaged Nepal in April. All the while, III MEF maintains strategic partnerships with its allies, such as South Korea and Australia, while continuing to enhance the stability and prosperity of the region.
Suffice to say, leading III MEF involves many moving parts.
As Wissler relinquished command of III MEF to Lt. Gen. Larry D. Nicholson during a change of command ceremony here at Camp Foster today, he fulfilled a promise he made the day he came aboard.
“I promise you this,” said Wissler, July 19, 2013. “We will be ready to fight tonight, we will be partner-enabled, and we will be able to respond to any crisis.”
Wissler and III MEF were tested early and often. In the fall of 2013, just a few months after he arrived at III MEF, Super Typhoon Yolanda struck the Philippines, resulting in over 6,000 casualties. The Marines’ response was Operation Damayan, a joint and multinational humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operation. During the operation, Marines delivered 1,200 tons of relief supplies and helped evacuate more than 10,000 people.
Wissler said that years of training with partnered nations and developing disaster protocol ultimately saved thousands of lives in the aftermath of the typhoon.
"We knew who to communicate with in the Philippines, and how we were going to apply force to the problem at hand, which was to get immediate relief to the people of the Philippines," said Wissler.
In April 2015, an earthquake shook Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people, destroying millions of homes and devastating one of the world's poorest countries. Again, III MEF Marines came to the rescue, often venturing high into the Himalayas, at altitudes where the Marine’s aircraft have rarely been called to fly. In the numbing cold, Marines evacuated victims, delivered food and supplies, and conducted search and rescue missions.
"We made the relationships, we knew who to talk to, and we knew how to get things done," said Wissler. "We were able to work with and through the government of Nepal and the Nepalese military to make sure that we met their requirements, and help them to help the people of Nepal."
In addition to humanitarian efforts, Wissler oversaw the Marines of III MEF as they forged partnerships in the region. The Marines of III MEF continually traveled to countries like South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines to train, side-by-side, with their partners. Wissler said this high operational tempo was crucial in maintaining the level of readiness he expected of III MEF.
To illustrate the pace of operations, Wissler explained, "There are about 22,000 MEF Marines west of the International Date Line, but we put about 40,000 sets of footprints on 22 countries every year.”
Wissler remarked on the complexity of III MEF’s mission and said that none of his previous assignments completely prepared him for the challenges he faced here, despite a lengthy track record. He served as the principal director for Asia Pacific Affairs, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and the deputy commander of U.S. Forces Japan. He led II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward in Afghanistan, and prior to taking command of III MEF, he even served as the deputy commandant for Programs and Resources, Headquarters Marine Corps.
"I think that my time in the Pentagon prepared me to understand the challenges in the rebalance to the Pacific, but I don't think anything can prepare you for the pace and the level of involvement that III MEF has in this region until you actually physically come here, and live it, and do it," said Wissler.
With Wissler’s departure, Nicholson, who previously served as the commanding general of 1st Marine Division, hopes to contribute his leadership experience to the Marines of III MEF. Prior to leading 1st MarDiv, Nicholson served as the deputy commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade of Task Force Leatherneck while deployed to Afghanistan, and the senior military assistant to the deputy secretary of defense.
Nicholson welcomes the challenge to lead III MEF.
“We always say there is only one reason we have a Marine Corps, and that Congress expects us to be most ready when the nation is least ready,” said Nicholson, a native of Toronto, Canada, who graduated from the Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina, in 1979. "I certainly understand the enormous responsibility that Marines and Sailors have, and I am looking forward to being a part of the MEF team."
As Wissler, a native from Camp Pendleton, California, heads stateside and awaits his next assignment, he considers what the III MEF Marines accomplished over the past two and a half years.
"I started with a purpose and gave them a method and an end state," said Wissler. "I explained that I wanted them to be able to respond to any crisis in the region, and make a difference, and to be partner enabled in everything we did. The end state was to have the most prepared MEF, and to eliminate the risk to mission and the people by the way we took care of ourselves -- and the way we take care of our fellow Marines.”
Wissler said he had the privilege of seeing his Marines accomplish his intent every day.
"III MEF Marines and sailors and their families are a different breed," said Wissler. "Every day, they are making a difference, not only in the lives of their fellow Marines and sailors, but they’re making a difference in the lives of the people in the Asia-Pacific Region every day, and that's pretty special."