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Retired Marine general, trailblazing Navy admiral among new picks who will scrutinize bases with Confederate names

Adm. Michelle Howard, vice chief of naval operations, addresses sailors during an all-hands at Naval Air Station Key West's Boca Chica Field. Howard is touring installations assigned to Navy Region Southeast. (Mass Communication Spec. 1st Class Brian Morales/U.S. Navy)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday that he has selected four people, including a former Marine Corps commandant and a retired four-star Navy admiral, to join a congressionally mandated commission that will consider how to rename U.S. military installations that recognize Confederate military officers.

Retired Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller, who led the Marine Corps from September 2015 to July 2019, will be joined by retired Adm. Michelle Howard, who became the first African American and woman to become the Navy’s vice chief of naval operations and recently served on the Biden transition team at the Pentagon.

The other two selections are Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and retired Army Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, a history professor emeritus at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., who has advocated for changing installation names.

“Each of these individuals possesses unique and relevant experience, in and out of government, that I know will inform this important effort,” Austin said in a statement. “I am enormously grateful for their willingness to serve the nation again, and I thank them in advance for the wise counsel I am confident they will provide.”

The Biden administration announced the selections after Austin blocked selections that the Trump administration had made for the positions. Acting defense secretary Chris Miller’s selections in January included Joshua Whitehouse, who had overseen the dismissal of numerous appointees to nonpartisan Pentagon advisory boards as the Trump administration sought to install loyalists instead.

The Trump administration’s other blocked selections include former White House officials Earl Matthews and Sean McLean and Ann Johnston, a Pentagon official in the Trump administration.

Neller said in a phone interview Friday that he had expressed interest in the commission’s work in recent days, and was asked to join the commission Thursday. The son of a soldier, he said he was born at Camp Polk, La., which is now Fort Polk and one of the installations eyed for renaming.

“I don’t have any concerns about renaming, but I have some concerns with all of the divisiveness in the nation and how it’s going to be perceived, and the second- and third-order effects,” Neller said Friday.

Last summer, he wrote in an essay that he will regret failing to ban the Confederate battle flag at Marine Corps installations during his tenure as commandant, and supported the decision of his successor, Gen. David Berger, to do so. Berger’s announcement came in April, before the police killing of George Floyd prompted a nationwide discussion about racial justice.

Schake, a Republican, said she is excited to be involved in the process.

“My view is that it’s work long overdue, and there are so many Americans we can and should be celebrating instead of Confederates who made war on our Union,” she said.

The commission was formed by Congress in defiance of Trump, who threatened to veto the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act if it included any effort to rename bases that recognize Confederates. He did so in December, but Congress overrode the veto.

The legislation states that the commission must launch its effort by March and mandates the removal of Confederate names from Defense Department property. That will include not only installation names, but also names on buildings, streets and other facilities.

The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees each will appoint a member to the commission.

The installations, all constructed in the Jim Crow-era between World War I and World War II, were established in former Confederate states. Some of the names were floated by segregationists and influential groups and approved by Army officials looking to keep local power brokers happy, Seidule told The Washington Post last year.

“It’s another way to support white supremacy,” he said of the names.

Efforts to rename some of the installations go back decades.

In 1944, two years after Camp Hood was named after Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, a senior commander pushed the War Department to rename it after Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who was killed by friendly fire in France. The Army denied the campaign, citing fear of “undesirable popular and political repercussions” in Texas, according to an Army history account of the base names.

The most prominent candidate for the renaming is Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez, a Special Forces soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor for a daring rescue of trapped and wounded comrades in Cambodia in 1968. Others include Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr., the first African American to become a four-star general in the Army, and Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, an Iraq War hero who is Black and expected to posthumously receive the Medal of Honor this year.

“Who we honor should represent our values,” Seidule said. “I don’t want to be like John Bell Hood. I want to be like Roy Benavidez.”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.