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Thousands must go: Task force charged with keeping the best, cutting the rest

Mar. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Marine officials are working to open more boat spaces for about 4,000 Marines still in line to reenlist this year. Only about 400 spaces remain open.
Marine officials are working to open more boat spaces for about 4,000 Marines still in line to reenlist this year. Only about 400 spaces remain open. (Lance Cpl. Jonathan Boynes/Marine Corps)
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The task force

Tucked in a small, stuffy room inside the command’s headquarters at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., is an impressive arrangement that looks more akin to a Combat Operations Center downrange than the cubicle arrangement in which manpower planners typically work.
The End Strength and Retention Optimization Group, or ESROG, formed because folks at Manpower and Reserve Affairs face quite the conundrum: 4,228 Marines want to re-enlist, but end-strength goals only allow for 400 more packages.
In response, this snap task force of sorts crammed itself into that small room, replete with computers, phones and a grid square’s worth of dry-erase board, and set about finding room for the best.
Scrawled across the walls are statistics, targets, mission objectives, charts and graphs. At the center sits more service stripes than you are likely to see anywhere outside the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Symposium, six master gunnery sergeant occupation monitors, snug round an inward-facing rectangle of tables, papers, clip boards, dip cans and a tangle of wires.
Stuffed with his face in the corner as if he’s done something wrong is a single gunny.
“Everyone in the career planner field knows Gunnery Sgt. Bryant Lodge,” assured Lt. Col. Rory Quinn, “He’s an all star.”
Lead by the head of Manpower's Enlisted Retention Section, Quinn and his team will conduct live video conferences with and field calls directly from commanders around the globe as they help them identify Marines they want to retain, they want to move and, more importantly, those they want to boot.
Each of the six master guns has a slate of expertise that will allow them to advise commanders how to separate Marines under current orders, regulations and force shaping programs.
One may be particularly versed in regulations regarding failure of the Body Composition Program while another may be versed in generalities like poor job performance.
Together they hope to “optimize the force,” manpower parlance for finding the right ones to cut and the right ones to keep.

There are more than 4,000 Marines in line to reenlist this year, but fewer than 400 spaces remain, meaning even the top performers among them are at risk of being arbitrarily shown the door when their current contracts end.

There are more than 4,000 Marines in line to reenlist this year, but fewer than 400 spaces remain, meaning even the top performers among them are at risk of being arbitrarily shown the door when their current contracts end.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — There are more than 4,000 Marines in line to reenlist this year, but fewer than 400 spaces remain, meaning even the top performers among them are at risk of being arbitrarily shown the door when their current contracts end.

But manpower officials want to make space for them and send this message to commanders: Purge troublemakers, underperformers and short-timers to make space for those who deserve a career.

“We are going to keep far more than 400 of those waiting in line. But we need your help,” reads an internal e-mail obtained by the Marine Corps Times and approved by Lt. Gen. Robert Milstead, the commanding general of Manpower and Reserve Affairs here in Quantico. The message was distributed to leaders across the service, including the commandant and the sergeant major of the Marine Corps.

“We need to look across the Corps and retain those Marines who have done what the Commandant asked them to do; ‘Bring your A game every day.’ Those who have not, we need to look them in the eye and tell them it is time to go home.”

To help unit leaders do that, M&RA has formed the End Strength and Retention Optimization Group, or ESROG. The group is lead by the head of Manpower’s enlisted retention section, Lt. Col. Rory Quinn, and is made up of six master gunnery sergeants, including career planners and occupational field monitors with authoritative knowledge of all things related to manpower.

Formed March 18, they are now helping commanders wade through the Corps’ lengthy manpower orders to identify specific ways to separate undesirable Marines — or retain those they want to keep — through an array of existing programs and regulations.

Each of the master guns has been assigned an area of expertise. For example, one can help a commander review policies that would allow them to administratively separate Marines based on security clearance problems or violations of tattoo policy. Another may be able to brief a commander on regulations having to do with special duty assignment drops or lateral move failures. Another specializes in Body Composition Program failures, performance evaluations, and Uniform Code of Military Justice violations.

It’s a career death knell for underperformers or those just counting down the days until they can go home. But it is great news for thousands of squared-away, career-minded Marines who would have otherwise been sent home not because they didn’t earn a place in uniform, but because there wasn’t enough space for them.

It’s unclear precisely how many boat spaces must be free. The working number is 4,228 based on the number of Marines who had submitted for reenlistment by the Feb. 28 deadline manpower officials imposed. Some of those Marines may no longer desire to reenlist, and a few may have blemished records or be substandard Marines who will be denied further service.

The ESROG began holding video conferences and taking calls from the fleet March 26. Commanders can call the group over the next two weeks and drill down into the specifics of particular Marines’ cases. If a commander wants to get rid of a substandard Marine, the ESROG will help him find grounds to process that individual out of uniform.

The key is to take the burden off of commanders who are busy running unit operations, Quinn said. They may not be familiar with every paragraph of the more than 500-page Separation and Retirement Manual, for example. So commanders simply say they want to retain or purge a Marine and give a general reason. The ESROG will find ways to carry out the commander’s wishes, if possible, by scouring the manual or looking at other standing programs and orders.

The group has zeroed in on Marines in five categories:

■ Those not worldwide deployable or assignable. These are Marines without enough time left on their contract to stabilize them for a deployment to Afghanistan, which requires at least 15 months.

■ Those with multiple violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or court-martial offenses.

■ Those who are in violation of height and weight standards or who have had more than two assignments to the Body Composition Program.

■ Those who have failed to complete Physical or Combat Fitness Tests.

■ Those on long-term limited duty. These are Marines who have spent two six-month periods on limited duty and have an ailment or injury that has stabilized. Wounded Warriors are not included.

To separate those Marines, the group has identified three main “lines of effort.”

First, administrative separations. If a Marine is in violation of height and weight standards and is failing to square themselves away after being placed in the BCP; has been on temporary limited duty for more than a year; or performs unsatisfactorily, the ESROG will find a way to separate that Marine and make space for one of the more than 4,000 still waiting in line to reenlist.

Second, cross-year approvals for the Voluntary Enlisted Early Release Program. VEERP allows enlisted Marines to request an early release up to 365 days prior to their end of active service date. In December, Manpower officials announced that they would allow Marines to request early release across fiscal years, meaning a Marine with an FY15 EAS could request an early release date — still subject to the 365 day limitation — in fiscal 2014.

The ESROG, is encouraging commanders to expedite and approve cross-fiscal-year VEERP requests if they will not threaten unit readiness. That is because releasing a Marine with an FY15 EAS in FY14 will count against this year’s numbers and open an additional space. Other voluntary incentives like Voluntary Separation Pay or the Temporary Early Retirement Authority program may also be used, although they are carefully targeted by rank and military occupational specialty. MOSs in high demand and chronically undermanned are ineligible.

Third, push Marines out of uniform up to a year early if they are non-compliant with assigned orders. If, for example, a Marine is nearing the end of his contract and declines final permanent change of station orders, then commanders will be able to process them for separation up to 365 days before the date they would have been required to report to their new duty station. A Marine who declines orders and has 14 months left on their contract may suddenly find themselves with just 60 days left in uniform.

While primarily concerned with making space for Marines who desire to remain in uniform, the ESROG will also help commanders retain Marines who might not exactly fit the mold, but are exceptional for one reason or another. While competition continues to rise throughout the drawdown as evidenced by ever-rising PFT scores, having an NJP or even two, does not mean it is impossible for a Marine to reenlist.

A Marine, for example, may have had one NJP early in their enlistment for possession of alcohol in the barracks and another for reporting back to the barracks a minute after curfew, Quinn said. But since then, the Marine may have kept his nose clean and proven exceptional in every other regard. A commander may want to retain that Marine. Quinn and the ESROG will advise that commander on the best ways to make sure that Marine’s reenlistment is approved despite the blemishes they have on paper.

“If you want to save a guy, I’ll tell you how to do that. If you want to separate the guy, I’ll tell you how to make that happen,” Quinn said.

He can explain to a commander how a written recommendation can change that Marine’s reenlistment decision. Or if a stellar sergeant is coming up on the 10-year enlisted career force control, they can assign that Marine to a special duty assignment like recruiting and take them to 12 years of service, thereby getting them another look for promotion with an SDA under their belt.

For those commanders who want to push out a Marine, Quinn said the ESROG will work to rely as much as possible on voluntary measures.

“We are not an assassination squad,” Quinn said, “I believe we can make a majority of these separations voluntary.”

If, for example, a Marine is assigned to the BCP and not making satisfactory progress, before the ESROG advises a commander on how to administratively separate that Marine, it may suggest giving the Marine the chance to take advantage of a voluntary force shaping program like VEERP, VSP or TERA. That would avoid an adverse final fitness report and possibly provide them with a financial benefit.

“We don’t want their last fitrep to be adverse or them out in the community saying, ‘the Marine Corps left me out in the cold,’ ” Quinn said.

But if Marines are substandard and decline to leave of their own accord, the ESROG will help commanders push them out involuntarily. Quinn is optimistic that, in most cases, Marines who are on their way out will take advantage of voluntary measures. Those in the BCP, for example, are having a tough and likely unpleasant time. Even for in-shape Marines near the maximum weight for their height, getting tape tested is stressful, Quinn said. That is doubly so for Marines who are out of regs and have to spend the weeks leading up to being taped dieting and spending extra hours at the gym. Those who repeatedly end up in the BCP will likely welcome a voluntary out, Quinn said.

The same goes for those who don’t have enough obligated time to be stabilized for a deployment to Afghanistan. Quinn said he believes those Marines will either jump at the opportunity to do a shorter deployment like a Unit Deployment Program pump or a Marine expeditionary unit float, or an even shorter deployment with a crisis response unit like the special purpose Marine air-ground task force in Moron, Spain. Few would rather sit in a garrison with nothing of interest to do, he said.

But that is based on the assumption that Marines about a year or less away from leaving uniform would be willing and eager to uproot their lives and execute PCS orders to another part of the world. If they don’t, they will be in non-compliance with assigned orders and the Marine Corps can begin processing them out up to 365 days early. That wouldn’t be voluntary.

It’s unclear whether the ESROG will continue after this re-enlistment season. But Quinn did not rule out the possibility.

“Certainly, it is too early in the process to judge whether this would be productive in a recurring sense,” he said. “What we know is that we currently have more interest in reenlistment than we have space available, and if the ESROG can be productive in helping synchronize commanders’ desires with Marines’ requests to stay or leave, then it might be appropriate to form the group again if a similar scenario of reenlistment demand and supply occurs.”

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