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The commander of the Marine Corps' Officer Candidates School, where last month three Marines died in an apparent murder-suicide, was removed from his job this week by the service's top general.
Col. Kris J. Stillings, a decorated infantry officer who served previously as a military assistant to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was relieved of his command Monday by Gen. Jim Amos, the Marine Corps' commandant. Located in Quantico, Va., OCS is a boot camp of sorts, used to train and screen all prospective Marine officers before they are commissioned second lieutenants and put on the path to leadership.
The decision to relieve Stillings was "painful," Amos told Marine Corps Times during an interview Wednesday at his home in Washington. The commandant selected Stillings for the OCS post nearly two years ago and acknowledged feeling a sense of "personal loyalty" to him. But as he agonized over what to do in light of last month's tragedy, "it boiled down to accountability," Amos said.
"I just lost confidence in Colonel Stillings' ability to handle all the many, many requirements of Officer Candidates School, being commanding officer," he said. "… With the death of three Marines, goodness, a month ago and a half ago now, that was a cold shot to the heart. … I worked my way through that, and I came to a persistent theme that I've been talking about for some time, and that's the issue about accountability."
Reached Wednesday night, Stillings provided the following statement.
"My command and the Marines of OCS mean the world to me," he said. "My wife and I are greatly saddened and upset by my relief, but we wish only the best for the Marines and sailors that work so hard at OCS. My relief is internal Marine Corps business, and I will address my concerns through the appropriate military process."
During Stillings' tenure at OCS, Marines with ties to the school were the focus of at least three highly publicized incidents — the most recent occurring March 22 when an instructor, Sgt. Eusebio Lopez, shot and killed two fellow staffers, Cpl. Jacob Wooley and Lance Cpl. Sara Castro Mata, before committing suicide, officials say.
Stillings took command of OCS in August 2011, as court proceedings were playing out for 10 Marines connected to a sweeping investigation into alleged sexual malfeasance among enlisted staff members there. His predecessor, Col. Rick Jackson, was in charge when those investigations began.
Last June, Stillings dismissed the largest group of officer candidates in the program's history after 31 students were suspected of cheating on a nighttime navigation test. Ultimately, 21 were told to leave OCS while the other 10 were put on probation and allowed to continue. During an interview weeks later, Stillings told Marine Corps Times the decision "broke my heart."
"That day was one of the hardest days — out of 32 years — I've ever had," he said last summer, "because I'm sitting face-to-face with young Americans who want to serve their country. And to have them do this, to interrupt or ruin that chance, it broke my heart."
Stillings' removal comes less than a year after Amos toured the service to deliver his "Heritage Brief," in which the commandant aimed to address what he saw as a breakdown of accountability and discipline coupled with complacency among some entrusted to lead. Prompted by a handful of incidents that spotlighted the misbehavior of a few, the effort focused on rank-and-file officers and staff noncommissioned officers. This winter, Amos met with all of the service's generals to deliver a similar message.
"We're not out to set records for relieving commanding officers," Amos said. "… I want to go on record as thinking an awful lot of Kris Stillings. I've relieved commanders in the past that you just went 'good riddance.' That's not the case here. It was right for the institution."
But "I'm deadly serious about it: You are responsible for what goes on inside your unit. Period. … It's the atmosphere set by the commanding officer. He or she is solely responsible for that."
Col. Harold R. "Odie" Van Opdorp, currently the Marine Corps' liaison to the U.S. Senate, will replace Stillings at OCS effective Monday, Amos said.
It's not immediately clear what Stillings' next move may be. With 30-plus years in uniform, he is eligible for retirement.
A prior-enlisted Marine, Stillings has an impressive bio, graduating with honors from the University of Arizona as part of the Marine Corps Enlisted Commissioning Program. He deployed in support of both U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with combat 'V' device for actions in Ramadi in 2006.
After earning a master's degree, Stillings went on to serve at the Pentagon, first as a counter terrorism planner on the Joint Staff and then as Gates' junior military assistant.