Kelly succeeds Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, who previously led Southcom since in June 2009 and is retiring after a 37-year military career.
As Southcom head, Kelly will be responsible for military operations in the 45 nations and territories located Central and South America and the Caribbean Sea, encompassing 16 million square miles.
The 38-year veteran most recently served as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta‘s senior military adviser since March 2011.
“He’s always been at my side as trusted confidant and a trusted friend, and more than anyone, he has ensured that the daily reality of those serving on the front lines informs and guides every decision that I’ve made,” Panetta said. “There are few that you’d like to share a foxhole with and John Kelly is one of those.”
Kelly becomes the third Marine to hold the top post at Southcom, with Gen. Peter Pace serving in that capacity between 2000 and 2001 and Gen. Charles Wilhelm from 1997 to 2000.
As head of Southcom, Fraser led the Defense Department’s support to U.S. and international relief efforts in Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake, which Southcom said was the largest disaster response mission in modern U.S. military history.
“Our focus and the key ingredient to our work over many years — starting well before my tour but continuing through it — has been our focus on building partnerships,” Fraser said. “Partnerships is the critical formula for ensuring the security of the Western Hemisphere.”