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MARINE BARRACKS WASHINGTON, D.C. — April was tough for the commandant.
After the release of next year’s budget request, Gen. Jim Amos appeared several times on Capitol Hill to advocate his vision for the Corps and field questions from lawmakers who’ve yet to reach agreement on how to stave off severe spending cuts. He traveled to the West Coast for several days, pressing flesh with some 10,000 Marines. Then Amos made what he called one of his toughest decisions of the past year: dismissing Col. Kris Stillings, whom he hand-selected to command Officer Candidates School, where, weeks prior, three Marines died in an apparent murder-suicide.
Amos met with Marine Corps Times at his home April 24 to discuss Stillings’ removal and his expectations for commanders and general officers in light of recent leadership lapses, including the highly publicized affair that forced retired Gen. David Petraeus to resign as CIA director. He addressed the service’s financial uncertainty and how that could affect plans to retain an active-duty force of 182,100, as well as recent changes to the Corps’ uniform policy. Excerpts, edited for space and clarity:
Q. Col. Stillings’ relief speaks to the seriousness of your position on accountability. Do you view this as a teaching moment?
A. Absolutely. I realize it could be looked at as a negative event, but I want it to be a positive teaching moment. We need to hit the refresh button on accountability. We need to remind everybody: staff NCOs, officers, commanders.
Q. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chair, recommended the services adopt 360-degree evaluations. Where is the Corps going with this?
A. After the Petraeus matter, the Joint Chiefs talked about the things we could do. There’s a couple. Number one, for generals, if your staff understands the ethical rules, they can guide the general and help make decisions — whether it’s travel, a gift or what event to speak at. Those closest to the inner circle need some degree of training on ethics.
Another suggestion: If you’re a general, you ought to have at least two or three people reading your email. I’m not talking about the Hotmail account you use to order from L.L. Bean. I’m talking about your military account. You come into my office and say, “How many people read General Amos’ email?” Hands will go up everywhere. That keeps me honest.
One of the things we talked about was 360-degree evaluations. Every general officer is going to receive a 360. It won’t go to promotion boards, but it will help the commandant make his assignments.
Q. On force structure: You’ve been passionate about keeping faith with Marines as the Corps reduces manpower. With sequestration, the situation is unpredictable at best. At what point do you have to look at involuntary separation measures?
A. I want to make sure everyone at least completes their enlistment. It’s been a policy in the Marine Corps that if you make staff sergeant or major, we can carry you to 20 years. It’s a loyalty thing. I may reach a point where I can no longer afford to do that. Voluntary separations are where we are now. But if we have to go below 182,000 as a result of sequestration, and we have to get there within five years, then all bets are off. And it’ll break my heart. It will involve about every kind of mandatory release from active duty. And there’s a cost with that. If we went to 182,000 by the end of this month, I can do that, but I have to pay separation pay and unemployment compensation. So the savings that you would realize by having less force structure, it takes about three years once you make all these penalty payments.
Q. Last winter, you asked Marines to wear a different uniform on Fridays. Is there anything else you’re thinking of updating along those lines?
A. I don’t think so. Right now, I’m satisfied. When I was at Pendleton, I told the Marines: “OK, I’m going to answer your questions up front, the ones you want to ask. Are we going to go sleeves up? The answer is no. Now, I know you want to show your guns. Believe it or not, there was a period in my life when I had some good-size guns. So I get it. But I have a solution to show off your guns. Wear Charlies on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — besides Friday. And I’m not changing the uniform on Friday, so just get over it. And by the way, I’m not changing the tattoo policy. Three commandants and nine years went into that. If you think I’m touching that, you’re crazy.” The Marines in the audience are howling while I’m talking about this. So, no, I don’t know of anything uniform-wise that we’ve got going right now.
Q. Of course, there was a Marine administrative message that just came out addressing exceptions to the uniform policy for religious accommodations, but that’s something separate, right?
A. It is, and it boils down to good order and discipline. We’ve said if you want to wear something, you need to petition a board set up by the deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. That way, we’ve got standardization. And I think the other services are doing it the same way.
Q. We’ve reported on Army Sikhs who petitioned to have beards. Is it possible Marines could do that?
A. Anybody can petition. Whether the board will approve it is another story because we’re into uniformity. When you become a Marine, you give up a lot of personal rights to be a part of the institution. But anybody can petition.