"He really never thinks he will be continuing on but keeps getting asked to do so," officials close to Dunford said. "Like many of his jobs, he did not position himself for them, he did not ask for this job in Afghanistan, and he will approach it like he does with all of his others, with a sense of duty and a desire to get the job done well," the official said.
Those close to him say he does not admire political jockeying, but his time in the very political Joint Chiefs of Staff showed many senior leaders at the time he can play political ball just as well as anybody. The ISAF commander walks a fine line of being a military commander and a political marksman.
He is considered a leader who gets things done. Sources tell the story of Dunford as a colonel commanding his Marines in Iraq on the march up to Baghdad in 2003 when one of his tanks became disabled. He wanted to ensure the safety of the crew and was running between tanks getting messages to the tank commander while Iraqi forces were shooting rocket-propelled grenades at him. The move was risky and unusual for a senior commander, let alone any other Marine.
The move earned him the nickname "Fighting Joe," which some who know him are pretty sure he is not happy about because it takes away from his troops and the mission. Sources say Dunford was put up for a Navy Cross -- one grade below the Medal of Honor -- but it was downgraded several times because, as one source put it, "Silver Stars are for troops who are blowing up machine gun nests, and colonels are not really doing that." Dunford does wear the Legion of Merit with combat valor for recognition of that event.
Dunford does not talk about the incident, sources say, and that attitude is part of why he is so widely admired by staff and colleagues. He is seen as being in touch with people, ensuring the praise is given it is due. At the same time, he will come down hard on those he perceives not pulling their weight.
He spent his second tour in Iraq as a one-star general after being confirmed in 2004, commanding the 5th Marine Regiment. He moved up the ranks quickly after that, recognized for his superior planning and commanding in combat.
In December 2007, Dunford was selected for a second star and was quickly promoted to a lieutenant general only two months later, even before Congress could confirm him for his second star.
"He is well-thought-of, and that kind of movement is emblematic of how he is though of in the Marine Corps," said Marine Col. David Lapan. "He has a good deal of experience he brings to the table, and people recognize that he is right for the position in Afghanistan," he said.