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Mr. Panetta followed a defense secretary tradition in naming a chief adviser to a four-star command.

“He’s been my senior military assistant since I came to the Pentagon last year,” Mr. Panetta said of Gen. Kelley at the change-of-command ceremony. “He’s always been at my side as a trusted confidant and a trusted friend.”

The Obama White House has awarded command plums to the Corps, despite it being the only service that openly opposed lifting the ban on gays in the military. Since repeal, however, Marine leadership has worked to make integration as smooth as possible.

Marine boosters such as Mr. Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, say the Corps overcomes its lack of troop clout by producing leaders who are good in battle and polished on Capitol Hill.

Gen. Mattis, for example, led Marines in southern Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003.

The Corps stands at just less than 200,000 troops, far outsized by the country’s other land force, the Army, with 552,000 soldiers.

Marine generals stepped to the fore in 2003, when President George W. Bush named the first Marine to head NATO, Gen. James L. Jones.

A year later, Gen. James Cartwright became the first Marine to lead another combatant command, U.S. Strategic Command. That post has gone to Air Force generals and Navy admirals who control the bulk of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.