WASHINGTON (AP) – Marine Gen. Peter Pace took over Friday as the military’s top leader, facing an unpopular war in Iraq, recruitment shortfalls at home and the possibility of an expanded role in domestic disasters.

At Pace’s swearing-in, several Marines who have served with the Vietnam veteran said he would give President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld honest counsel as the military tries to reshape itself to battle the war on terror.

Some critics, however, said they were concerned that as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pace would march in the footsteps of his predecessor, Gen. Richard Myers, and loyally tout the administration’s defense strategy.

“General Myers has been known to gloss over the realities in Iraq, beating the drum about where we made progress,” said Caroline Wadhams, national security analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal organization. “Pace has got to speak truth to power – to Rumsfeld and Bush – and not just speak rhetoric.”

“General Pace has shown himself to be a brilliant thinker, and an inspiring leader. His life is a story of the American dream,” said Bush.

Pace choked up as he talked about those who have died serving their country.

“I promise each of you that as I strive to give my best military advice to the president and the secretary of defense and the national security council, that I will remember not only the mission but the impact it will have on the lance corporals and the airmen and lieutenant junior grades and the captains,” he said.

Pace, 59, is the first Marine to be named chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the second man to move from vice chairman to chairman.

His leadership abilities will be tested as he leaves his four-year post as vice chairman to lead a military stretched thin by conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and – in the wake of devastating Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – could be asked to take on an expanded role in natural disasters.

Meanwhile, the Army has just ended one of the leanest recruiting years since it became an all-volunteer service three decades ago, missing its enlistment target by the widest margin since 1979.

With public support for the Iraq war waning and Congress’ patience wearing thin, military leaders acknowledged Friday that shifting Iraq’s security to its own forces is taking longer than expected.

Congress has just five words for Pace, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Friday in an interview: “Tell it like it is.”

Hunter said that while Congress may want comforting assurances, it’s up to the Joint Chiefs chairman to give an unvarnished view of military conditions. Myers has done that, said Hunter, and nothing less is expected of Pace.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Friday that Pace must be candid about whether the military is being overstretched and if the budget is adequate.

“We’ve got to hope that he will take steps to end the stress on the forces, because this force is under huge stress,” said Levin. “He’s seen firsthand that mistakes have been made. He could forcefully decide that he’s going to speak out and speak up.”

Adm. Timothy Keating, head of the U.S. Northern Command which coordinated the military’s response to the hurricanes, said Pace “is his own man” who will “provide candid counsel to the president.”

In the audience, among the country’s top leaders, were several Marines who knew Pace at the start of his military career, in the rice paddies near Danang. And they could attest to his commitment to the lance corporals under his command.

Pace was a platoon leader, and Barney Barnes was one of his squad leaders in 1968, when they came under fire in An Hoa. As they set up a machine gun to return fire, one of the sniper’s rounds ricocheted off the gun and struck Lance Cpl. Guido Farinaro in the heart.

“I know that General Pace’s first inclination was to call in the artillery and bomb the heck out of that village,” recalled Barnes. “But he knew better than that.”

Instead, he said, under Pace’s guidance they were able to “maintain some emotional stability” and search the village, ultimately in vain, for the sniper. Then they loaded Farinaro’s body onto a helicopter, and said their goodbyes to their fallen comrade. Even now, Pace keeps a picture of Farinaro – the first Marine he lost in combat – on his desk.

“It’s one thing to command, but it’s an entirely different thing to lead, and Peter Pace is a leader,” said Barnes.

Pace was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Teaneck, N.J. After his Vietnam tour he served in South Korea and later held a wide array of command positions, including president of the Marine Corps University, deputy commander of joint forces in Somalia, and head of the U.S. Southern Command.

On the Net:

Joint Chiefs of Staff: http://www.jcs.mil/

Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.