The move comes as the military grapples with its own challenges of racial strife at a time when the country reckons with the police killing of George Floyd, and as Marines in Europe and Africa prepare for everything from battle with Russia to emergencies requiring quick deployment of combat-ready troops.
Neary allegedly used a racial slur around Marine subordinates at the Marine Forces Europe and Africa headquarters in Boeblingen, Germany, in August, said Capt. Joseph Butterfield, a Marine Corps spokesman.
The incident is still under investigation, Butterfield said, but preliminary findings led Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger to relieve the general, Butterfield said.
A Marine at the parade field told Stars and Stripes, which first reported details of the allegations, that Neary overheard the n-word in a rap song during physical training and repeated it in front of junior Marines, asking how they would feel if he said it.
Even if it was a teachable moment, an unnamed Marine told the paper, “it came as a shock to hear it from a white general officer,” Stars and Stripes reported, and the conversation stunned Black and Latino Marines. “He lost respect right there,” a junior Marine told Stars and Stripes.
Rosemary Williams, a former Pentagon official who has known Neary for about 15 years, defended Neary, saying he has long advocated for diversity and equal opportunity in the ranks.
The allegation, she said, “is not consistent with what I know of Steve Neary.”
Floyd’s killing sounded the alarm over the depth of racial tension in the military, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in August.
“I don’t think what everybody appreciated — at least me, personally — is the depth of sentiment out there among our service members of color, particularly Black Americans, about how much the killing of George Floyd — and the other incidents that preceded it and succeeded it — had on them and what they were experiencing in the ranks as well,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum.
Critics have long said that racial injustice seeped into the military, an institution that has prided itself on the concept of egalitarianism.
Esper acknowledged some problems in August. The military is “not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice,” he said in August, as he announced plans to widen diversity and equal opportunity.
The force previously overseen by Neary is responsible for a host of missions, including contingencies of Marines in Spain and Italy that are on call for emergencies in Africa, such as militant attacks on embassies. The Marines also rotate through Norway to train in Arctic conditions in preparation for conflict with Russia.
Neary served in Desert Storm and as a company and battalion commander in the Iraq War, the Marine Corps Times reported. He previously served as the II Marine Expeditionary Force deputy commander and commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Col. James T. Iulo assumed duties as the acting commander of Marine Forces Europe and Africa until a replacement is found, the Marine Corps said.