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Exclusive: In candid conversation, generals say it's time to fix Marine Corps

Oct. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Gen. James F. Amos (Rob Curtis/Staff)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos wants to “reawaken” the service after a dozen years of combat, calling for a period of transition in which standards are reinvigorated and Marines see a variety of long-dormant standards brought back.

The commandant delivered his plan to senior officers at the General Officer Symposium, held here Sept. 23-27. It calls for a variety of initiatives, including the installation of security cameras in every barracks, the incorporation of more staff noncommissioned officers and officers on duty, and the arming of staff NCOs and officers on duty, according to briefing slides from the commandant’s address.

Amos’ briefing slides say that while the Corps has been successful fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “we are now seeing signs that are our institutional fabric is fraying.” He cited sexual assault, hazing, drunken driving, fraternization and failure to maintain personal appearance standards among his concerns.

In a statement provided to Marine Corps Times late Sept. 25, the commandant, who was not available for comment, expanded on his concerns.

“It is impossible to overstate my pride in the brilliant performance of our Marines through 12 years of sustained combat,” Amos said. “As the Corps resets itself for the conflicts and crises to come, the magnificence of the many has thrown into sharp relief the failure of the few to live up to our high standards. Rather than wait for a creeping complacency to set in, I’m turning to my leaders at all levels to refocus Marines on what we do and who we are.”

The commandant’s briefing slides were more blunt.

“We have a behavioral problem within the Corps — a small, but not insignificant, number of our Marines are not living up to our ethos and core values,” one of Amos’ slides says. “They are hurting themselves, their fellow Marines, civilians and damaging our reputation.”

The commandant said he wants senior officers, staff NCOs and NCOs to visit the barracks regularly, especially between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. Company-grade officers will be assigned as officers on duty, and staff NCOs will be assigned as staff officers on duty — practices that were once commonplace but have slid in recent years, senior Marine officers said.

All Marines on duty will be required to wear service uniforms, either “Bravos” or “Charlies,” depending on which uniform is in season. Two NCOs will be on duty per barracks, and a fire watch will be conducted on each floor of each building. Every Marine checking into a new unit also will be contacted before he or she arrives by an assigned sponsor, and his or her NCO, staff NCO and company-grade officer will meet and greet them, Amos said, according to his brief.

Marine Corps Times initially published a story online about the the commandant’s plan on Sept. 25 after an electronic copy of the commandant’s briefing slides rocketed across the service through email and was obtained by the newspaper.

Afterward, the newspaper was invited to Quantico to discuss the brass’ vision with a cadre of senior leaders who were attending the General Officer Symposium. They are Lt. Gen. John Toolan, the commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Lt. Gen. John Wissler, the commanding general of III MEF, out of Okinawa, Japan; Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commanding general of 1st Marine Division at Pendleton; Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, the commanding general of 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, out of Okinawa; and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett.

The blunt conversation covered everything from preparing for life after Afghanistan to the commandant’s 2011 decision to end the Corps’ tradition of rolling sleeves in summer months. A transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and brevity:

Toolan: We started this process probably a year ago. The commandant came out with his Heritage Brief, and he started walking and talking about values and how important they were.

The big push, where the commandant kind of formulated his presentation, was through the commander’s leadership seminars that we held at each of the MEF locations. Myself, General Wissler and others, we got our commanders together, and we said, “OK, post-[Operation Enduring Freedom], we need to get back to our expeditionary roots. We’ve lost a few things along the way. We need to get it back. How do we do that?”

And so, none of this is really new to any of the commanders because most of it is coming directly from them. The commandant kind of just glommed onto these ideas and said, “OK, now I think I understand what’s coming from the field. Here is what I understand. Tell me if it’s correct.” And that was really the basis of his presentation.

Nicholson: I don’t think you can look at this in isolation as just the barracks. I know at I MEF, and certainly at 1st Division where I’m at, we’re looking at it holistically across the spectrum. Number 1, tactics. We’ve been doing a certain sort of tactic in Afghanistan. We’ve been doing [counterinsurgency], and we’ve been doing it very, very well for the last decade, between Iraq and Afghanistan. But, it’s come at the expense of some of our fundamental things. One of the questions I ask all the time is, “Could we do the march to Baghdad today?”

Kennedy: General, when you talk about linking this to tactics and the excellence of our behavior or our performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we ought to take that as a pat on the back. But, how you live is how you fight, and not just in a [Forward Operating Base] up in Sangin. The guys who lived like pigs in the combat garrison, so to speak, they had an inordinate number of casualties. They were sloppy with the population. There were incidents. ...


It’s all those petty disciplines that add up to combat effectiveness. I was the force generation regiment back at Camp Lejeune for 18 months while I was waiting for everybody to come back from Iraq. And you’d see all those same bad behaviors that were practiced with bad units in garrison, whether it was in Iraq or Afghanistan, were being amplified when they got back to Camp Lejeune. And they felt as though, “Hey as long as I was a good field Marine, it didn’t matter. ... And it was absolutely wrong, because then I redeployed with those guys and saw that the units that were lax with discipline in North Carolina were lax in discipline in certain cities in Afghanistan, and they paid a toll with their Marines. It’s all linked.

Wissler: One of the pieces was seeking and achieving tactical brilliance by enforcing the standards. By enforcing all standards. All standards, for this very reason: The units that have standards and enforce standards where they live translates to where they work, translates to where they fight. And so, this is just a compilation of feedback that many of the commanding generals gave back to the commandant to then move our Corps forward on the exact same vector, Corps-wide, so that there is no stone unturned.

Barrett: I just want to throw some stats at you. You know there’s 195,000 active-component Marines this morning running around the Marine Corps. And you’re aware that 174,000 of them are the enlisted force. That’s 89 percent of the Marine Corps. And I wasn’t sure if you were aware, but 145,000 of them are sergeants and below. Our opportunity is the NCOs; ... 145,000 Marines are sergeants and below. That means sergeants are responsible to, and being held accountable for, 83 percent of the entire enlisted force. If you want to talk about the enormity and the responsibilities we put on the shoulders of a young Marine, a noncommissioned officer, it’s one of the most formidable obligations they are ever going to have in their life. This is about a post-OEF discipline, and the same responsibilities we give them over in Afghanistan are the same responsibilities they’ve earned, and they deserve to have here.

Wissler: Let me add on to what the sergeant major said. Just this week — and this is anecdotal obviously — but there were two incidents back in III MEF this week where corporals stepped up and made a difference. The situation was going bad, and corporals stepped into the situation with two lance corporals and made a difference.

Toolan: In many ways just by giving [NCOs] the authority, and in recognizing their promotions and where they are, they really empower the leadership. They bring it back to us, and give us the capability to get the job done. It’s not so much us giving it to them. It’s just the other way. Right now, we really need to reset the Corps. Some of the things that General Kennedy talked about, and General Nicholson, in regards to habits, and operating out of [forward operating bases], it’s outside the Marine Corps core competencies. We had to make some adjustments, and sometimes I think we didn’t catch all the bad habits that were happening in place there. But, now we have the opportunity to reset that, and that’s what we’re looking for. To put us back where we should be.

Nicholson: You know nobody gives more responsibility to more junior personnel than we do. In the Army, if you’re a squad leader you have to be a staff sergeant. You have to be an insignia E-6 before you’re a squad leader in the Army. Most of the squad leaders we have out there are senior corporals, sometimes junior sergeants, E-4s and E-5s. So we power down. We don’t just talk the talk, we walk it, whether it’s in combat or whether it’s here.

Marine Corps Times:Some of the measures that appear in the plan are underway. But when you start talking about adding more guys to duty, removing TVs, some of those things are taken by some Marines as a slap in the face. Almost like they can’t be trusted.

Wissler: There was a time where there were no TVs allowed. No computers allowed. There were no books allowed for guys who were on duty. How we got here, we got here, but this is enhancing that capability ... and now we have an opportunity to reset the baseline. Nobody stood duty in Afghanistan or Iraq with a laptop and movies or anything else. They were focused on the mission, and that duty needs to be focused on the mission.

Barrett: When you publish this, make sure you publish the 11 general orders, because nowhere in the 11 general orders does it say, “Sit at my post in a military manner playing f---ing video games and watching f---ing TV. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the 11 general orders, and as a matter of fact, we have to add a 12th one: “Walk my post from flank to flank, and don’t take sh-- from any rank.” That’s exactly what the 12th one should be. I hope when you publish this, you publish, “Let’s remind ourselves as to what our general orders are. Nowhere in there does it say TV and f---ing video games.”

Kennedy: Are people really coming back and complaining about that? Their duty is a privilege, really. It’s to watch over the flock. How do you that when you’re in a little cubicle watching “The Simpsons”?

Nicholson: The best guy you’ll ever have on duty is the one who is out stopping problems before they start. He’s out on the catwalk. He’s out in the parking lot. He’s taking a Marine who has really had too much to drink and putting his arm around him and getting him up to his room and putting him to bed before that guy has a chance to do something. That’s the duty NCO that makes it all worth it. That’s the guy everyone should try to be, the guy who can stop and prevent and anticipate problems. You can’t do that when you’re watching TV. You can’t do that when you’re watching a ballgame, or you’re on Facebook in your little office.

Wissler: You’ve been out there [in Afghanistan]. How many one-man security posts have we ever posted anywhere? Never. Two! Two is the norm. It’s not like any of this is inventing anything. It’s going back to those fundamentals.

Nicholson: We don’t do one-man fighting holes.

Wissler: Right. We don’t do one-man fighting holes. And so the guy who is out there collecting up the guy who is a problem, there still needs to be a point of contact back in the barracks for someone who has a problem or an issue. It’s not, “OK, we’re going to take twice as many of them and punish them with duty.” It’s, “We’re going to live the way we train, the way we fight.” It has served us incredibly well over time.

Kennedy: I don’t know if we’re the only barracks that has cameras, or maybe the largest example that have cameras in the common areas. You know at first, you’d think they would be intrusive. You know, “Big Brother,” and most people would complain about that. But most people have said, “Sir, it keeps the a--holes from keeping me awake at night.” All the drunks who used to be out ... drinking at night now have to get their game on somewhere else. And the Marines who have to get up at 6 a.m. and do a shift turning a wrench somewhere, or going to the field or whatever, they appreciate the opportunity not to have their private time screwed with by a bunch of loud-mouthed fools.

MCT: It generally hasn’t been all NCOs on duty over the last couple years. You’ve had plenty of lance corporals on duty.

Nicholson: And we still will. Fire watches are still going to be out there.

MCT: So where is the shift, if there is one?

Barrett: The officer of the day is an officer, the staff duty noncommissioned officer is a staff noncommissioned officer. A duty noncommissioned officer is a sergeant or corporal.

MCT: Meaning it hasn’t always been in the past.

Kennedy: When we grew up, it always was. But it has atrophied.

Barrett: I was never given the green duty belt until I was a corporal. When I was a lance corporal, I was responsible for walking up and down the hallways and the catwalks at Twentynine Palms. That was my duty. That was my post.

Toolan: All these changes are not necessarily oriented on the enlisted Marines, and I think that’s probably the perspective you’re getting. Because as I said, there were [gunnery sergeants] who were standing in captains’ posts at division headquarters. That’s not going to happen anymore. Now it’s going to be a captain or it’s going to be a lieutenant. Also, we already have housing, and in some cases [for officers] it’s going to be, “Sorry, pal. You’re living on base.” It starts at the top.

Barrett: Service as a corporal or a sergeant is a privilege. And it is a privilege founded on integrity, and that brings with it great responsibility. I would like to know what NCOs take offense to this, because when they accepted this promotion warrant, they said that they would do all these things. Those who have problems with this need to give me back their promotion warrant and that rank.

MCT: One of the reasons there is push-back is because you’re dealing with so many things. There are money concerns, the drawdown, all these variables that are unclear.

Nicholson: Part of it is change. Nobody likes change. We were joking the other day, if four years from now the commandant twice removed said, “OK, we’re going to roll sleeves up,” there would be 20 letters to the editor going, “This is bull----!” Any change is fraught with resistance. Again, the perception of change here. There isn’t really change at all.

MCT: But when you add Charlies on Fridays…

Kennedy: But that has all been done before.

MCT: We get that. But you’re doing it now. And they weren’t in the Corps before. A large portion of our readers have been a Marine two or three years.

Barrett: Right. But it’s also about resetting our spirit and about reawakening our souls as Marines. Again, as young Pfc. or Lance Corporal Barrett stationed at Twentynine Palms, California, every single Friday, every single payday, you were in Chucks. You had to be in your service uniform, and you’d have to be wearing your identification tags, and you’d have your ID cards. You’d walk and step in front of the first sergeant, and he would pull open your personal financial record to make sure everything was right. You’d then sidestep in front of the XO and make sure your [re-enlistment bonus] was accurate and if there was anything else you needed to do. You’d then sidestep in front of the commanding officer next and do a couple facing movements. And then you’d salute and get your pay and walk away.

Nicholson: I just launched one of my units to III MEF. Third Battalion, 1st Marines, is going to be one of the first [Unit Deployment Program] units. Sergeant Major David Jobe and I went out and talked to the entire battalion. And what I told them is, “This is not a training deployment. This is a combat deployment. You are the ... nation’s [quick-reaction force]. We have no idea what might happen while you’re over there. Whenever you deploy, you’re ready for any possible contingencies. That discipline starts at home.

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