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Top Marine Corps leaders are examining the possibility of making weeks-long residential courses for noncommissioned officers mandatory for promotion to the next grade.
NCOs currently have the option of completing their professional military education online. But that could change as Commandant Gen. Jim Amos calls on planners to figure out ways to boost the throughput of corporals and sergeants through resident courses they would be required to complete, in addition to their distance education.
The push for this initiative, leaders assert, comes in part because of the evolution in the Marine Corps mission, and in part because of some troubling themes throughout the ranks, including hazing, bad behavior in the war zone and sexual assault.
The new requirements would also temporarily cycle into PME more Marines from some of the most populous ranks, putting pressure on those remaining behind to meet garrison mission in a Corps that's markedly smaller, while also responsible for measurably more ground abroad. Nevertheless, the new requirements fit in with recent initiatives to professionalize a more disciplined force, as well as operational goals that envision units deploying in the smaller, more agile format.
The Corps' new road map for the next decade, Expeditionary Force 21, emphasizes small-unit operations, which could place more responsibility on young NCOs. Planners expect that in-person PME that stresses critical thinking would better prepare them for the, often moral, challenges they'll face in those settings.
Lance corporals can also expect more face-time with their leaders. The Corps is currently piloting the Lance Corporals Leadership and Ethics Seminar, and officials say it might be rolled out as a service-wide requirement as early as May. That, too, could become a requirement in order to be eligible to promotion to corporal.
The new path for these ranks comes as a result of the commandant's long-standing goal to increase Marines' education, on the enlisted and officer sides. Ethics and leadership face-time for NCOs and lance corporals in a resident or seminar experience ties into several efforts Amos has been pushing over the years.
But nearly doubling the number of Marines who have to leave their units to fulfill promotion requirements could place new challenges on leaders who already fulfill busy mission requirements, including high operational tempo and pre-deployment workups.
Officials say there's value in finding ways to get more Marines into seminar and residential education programs, as there's no substitute for sitting down with Marines and getting them to talk about important issues.
About 3,200 sergeants attend the resident course each year. If the Corps drops to 175,000 Marines, it's estimated that there will be 5,600 new sergeants annually, said Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, president of the Marine Corps University and commanding general of Education Command.
When the commandant tasked Weidley's command with seeing what it would take to move nearly double the number of sergeants through a resident experience, the one-star said they looked at a variety of options, including new brick-and-mortar establishments, weaving the course into Marines' military occupational specialty training or eliminating other courses to make more room for the NCOs.
But budgetary restrictions nixed the possibility of new structures to house the courses, Weidley said. And they didn't want to decrease the number of courses for other ranks or interfere with MOS training, he said.
"The only way to do it was looking at what can you do in a resource-constrained environment with the infrastructure you have now, with the resources you have now," Weidley said. "The only way you can really double our throughput is to cut the course in half."
The normal Sergeants Course runs about seven weeks. Weidley said they'll be going from 33 days of contact time down to 20. That launched the first pilot version of the course here at Quantico, which wrapped up April 1. The second version is set to start May 12.
Weidley and his staff presented their ideas on what to fit into the four-week course during the Sergeants Major Symposium. The thought was to remove pieces from the curriculum they felt Marines could do on their own or with their unit before they arrived at the resident course, he said.
"We've really tried to offload a lot of the knowledge-based stuff that can be done more easily in a distance environment or without the actual contact time and focused the four weeks on what you need to do kneecap-to-kneecap to be effective," he said.
The Corporals Course could see a similar fate.
"The commandant also asked me to look at whether we could put every corporal through a resident experience, which is a command-sponsored three-week course," Weidley said.
Just as they did for sergeants, they're now looking at what it would take to put every corporal through a command-sponsored course. The shorter Sergeants Course is under careful scrutiny though, Weidley said. And it's likely a shorter Corporals Course would be, too.
"Everybody's very concerned that the product that comes out at the end of the seven-week course is pretty darn close to what comes out of the four-week course," Weidley said. "And I think we're going to be there."
Sergeants going through the shorter course will still have 8½ hours per day of classroom time, five days a week. Education Command will apply lessons learned from the first pilot course to the second, and so on, Weidley said.
Filling the gaps
At the same time the Marine Corps is testing the shortened Sergeants Course, a sergeant major is touring installations across the globe to run beta versions of the Lance Corporals Leadership and Ethics Seminar, a five-block course designed as a refresher on core values.
When officials looked at the whole of enlisted education, there was a period between boot camp and possibly all the way up to the rank of sergeant where Marines weren't required to take any resident PME, Weidley said. That meant several years could pass between the extremely regimented boot camp experience and their next resident-type PME, he said.
"There was a gap in there at the lance corporal level, which you can argue is a very influential time in a Marine's upbringing," he said. "[That's] how you ensure they maintain their ethos and they understand their ethical foundations and how those things carry though."
Like the push to make Corporals and Sergeants courses mandatory, the Lance Corporals Leadership and Ethics Seminar would be a follow-on to their distance learning requirements, called Leading Marines.
The Marine Corps saw a good opportunity to reach Marines at that rank to talk about and address some of the issues plaguing the service, Weidley said. The seminar includes blocks not only on ethics and leadership, but communication, problem solving, societal ills and Marine Total Fitness — to include everything from physical to mental health.
In order to develop a curriculum for the course, Sgt. Maj. Laura Brown, the lance corporal leadership seminar project manager, is testing the seminar with units from across the Corps. She's working with aviation, ground and logistics units from California, Japan and Virginia. The idea was to test the pilot seminar with a broad cross section of the Corps and the Marine air-ground task force, Weidley said.
Weidley said the goal is to have 50 to 60 lance corporals taking each seminar led by five or six sergeants with a staff NCO supervising.
"The intent is that it's done in the Socratic Method, so it's not 200 lance corporals in a theater with a gunnery sergeant up on a stage going across these five individual modules by PowerPoint and killing Marines," he said.
Instead, they're role playing and conducting small-unit discussions, where the lecturer's questions lead participating Marines to the sought-after conclusions.
After Brown wraps up the test-run, the plan is to present a seminar to unit leaders that can be tailored to their needs, Weidley said. There will be main blocks they'll have to cover, but how leaders do that, or what they add to it, will be up to them, he said. That means Reserve units can run the seminar during a drill weekend while another unit conducts it once a week over a two-month period.
"What we didn't want to do is mandate you have to do this and you have to do it in five consecutive days, which is hard for units training and getting ready to deploy," he said. "We wanted to make it as easy on them as possible by building flexibility in the program."
Meeting new challenges
Moving more NCOs through resident courses at a faster rate doesn't come without challenges. If a Marine is struggling with a certain concept, for example, Weidley said they are aware that instructors have fewer days with them to help them work through it.
They'll be keeping a close eye on how sergeants completing the course perform on their final examination and oral presentations, he said. They want to make sure those in the four-week pilot courses are measuring up against those in the seven-week version.
Sergeants who've experienced career success after taking the resident course are also hopeful that the strongest subjects that have helped them aren't cut for time. One Okinawa-based sergeant, who asked that his name not be used since he wasn't authorized to speak on the subject, said the focus on developing each individual Marine's leadership style was invaluable and helped propel him forward in his career. If the course is shortened, he said he hopes the sections of the course that helped him get there aren't lost.
"I went to [resident course] from a joint unit where as a sergeant I had been the lowest ranking Marine for almost two years," he said. "When the day finally came where I got my first subordinate, I was a much more prepared leader."
Some of the time spent on combat-related topics though, like planning a patrol, seemed watered-down and better taught somewhere else, he said. But another sergeant who recently attended the resident course disagreed. Sergeants Course might be the only place non-infantry Marines develop those skills, he said, who also asked that his name not be used due to the sensitive nature of his work.
"Because non-grunt Marines are never exposed to combat skills, it is important that they have a course where they can learn it," he said. "Admin skill can quite frankly be taught at the unit through experience; combat skill cannot."
Unit leaders have also expressed concern over the push to move three of the largest ranks through seminars and resident courses. Weidley said their top concern was losing their NCOs for weeks at a time.
It will be a challenge for unit commanders and sergeants major, Weidley said, but PME can remain a priority, even while deployed. Corporals going to Okinawa can still attend a command-sponsored Corporals Course there, he said, and those deploying with Marine expeditionary units can do some of their courses while at sea.
"It really comes down to commanders and sergeants major trying to find the best time to do education and the best time to do training," he said. "And if you tie these efforts to promotion things, it kind of becomes an additional forcing function."
Keeping Marines focused on education that emphasized good leadership can also help alleviate time spent on other problems within their unit, he added.
"Having warriors that can adapt and adjust and have agility of the mind in how they address problems are all in the goals of our education programs," he said.■