Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett testifies April 9 on Capitol Hill. Listening to his right are Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Michael D. Stevens and Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler. (Sgt. Marionne T. Mangrum/Marine Corps)
Nobody wants less.
That’s the message from Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett following heated backlash stemming from a comment he made at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee April 9 that appeared to imply that the reduced pay raise and possible cuts to benefits Marines face in the coming year would serve to promote better discipline in the ranks.
“I truly believe it will raise discipline,” he told the lawmakers. “You’ll have better spending habits. You won’t be so wasteful.”
He also told the panel that the Marines he spoke with were more concerned with military readiness and modern equipment than they were about pay and benefits.
“They want to know into whose neck that we put a boot next,” he said.
Within 48 hours of making the comments, Barrett wrote a letter to all Marines expanding on his meaning as a measure to counter misunderstanding of his position. And he sat down with Marine Corps Times, which first reported his remarks, for a frank discussion on the pain of budget cuts and the needs of the war fighter.
Q. Do you believe Marines could be more disciplined in their spending and currently have wasteful spending habits, and why if so?
A. It was not the intent of my remarks at all. Simply, when times are tough and resources are slim, we make better choices. Discipline is choices. And here I stole something, I think from Shakespeare: to buy or not to buy, that is the question. Our Marines are very disciplined. As a matter of fact, one of those timeless habits and attributes that we Marines are known for is our persistent discipline. So I am absolutely not questioning discipline, I’m merely saying when times are tough and resources are slim, we make better choices and discipline is choices. “
Q. The language about wasteful spending, do you think it gets to the heart of your message, or would you go back and rephrase that, given the chance?
A. I don’t think I ever said wasteful spending, did I?
Q. “You’ll have better spending habits and you won’t be so wasteful.”
A. I’ll use this perfect example: ‘I think I’ll go and buy a 72-inch TV,’ when seriously, do you need a 72-inch TV? ‘I’ve got the money, might as well buy a 72-inch television;’ when what’s wrong with the 32-inch TV? ‘I’m going to buy 72 ounces of Mountain Dew five times a day.’ It’s better spending habits. Different choices, you’re going to think, this is how much I’ve got. Better spending discipline is what I meant by that. You might not squander dollars.
Q. People may say some Marines aren’t making that choice. They are making the choice of whether to pay the co-pay to get their cold checked out, or pay the heating bill. How do you respond to that?
A. [It’s about] Better spending habits in general ... Not spending beyond your means. [Those in need] should go to see their command financial specialist and, [say], ‘Here is how much money I have. Here are my wants, and here’s my needs. As soon as I get my paycheck how much should I put away?’ That’s what it’s about.
Q. Do you think anything that you said might lead the members of that panel to say, ‘Well, maybe the Marine Corps doesn’t need as much as the other services do, maybe we don’t have to give them as much’?
A. I don’t think that that panel, that subcommittee would think that way at all. I kind of use the teacup and the saucer analogy... the teacup is the emotion, it’s right up front, it’s me coming up with this issue, here it is. And it’s [the Senate’s] responsibility to cool what has happened. I think our elected leaders sitting in that subcommittee are going to take everything in and [consider what everyone said.]Don’t forget that a lot of our senior leadership is also testifying before these subcommittees [which] will take everything in, and go, ‘What is absolutely best and right for the men and women who wear the uniform? What is right, what can we do, what shouldn’t we do?’ I have trust and confidence that our leadership that they’re going to make the right decisions.
Q. You say the Marines have never had it so good. Has it gotten so good for Marines in the sense that some have gotten used to a too-expensive quality of life that endangers readiness?
A. Our training, our equipment, the people, the men and women who wear our cloth [are] all top-tier. Our education, EPME, our barracks, our chow halls, our child development centers, our medical care, our medical treatment facilities, our fitness centers, our PXs, are amazing. Nothing is too good for those who lay it on the line every single day. Let me tell you, I do know the term, ‘quality of life,’ is subjective. But quality of life and morale, to me, is coming home. If we have the best training, if we have the best equipment, if we have the best education, we’re the best on the battlefield. And when you’ve got a married Marine or a Marine that has dependents at home, and they forward deploy? You know what keeps a person’s head clear? That my family is cared for back home. That we have all those wonderful family care programs in place, those facilities to take care of them. That gives me, that gives anybody who’s forward deployed that peace of mind that I know my family is OK. And I would tell you to the tune of 1,225 Marines who have given their lives over this last 12 years of combat, and to the 13,553 who have given their blood, their body parts, and in a great many instances, their minds — we’ve hard earned it, to that tune. So to me, quality of life or morale is [Marines] coming home. Our readiness will absolutely be at the forefront of our efforts. Maintaining the high quality of our people and our families are continuing actions, and that is never compromising the absolutes. That was my clear intention all along. When I said our quality of life has never been better, that was exactly what it’s been about.
Q. You say no standard of life is too good, no package of benefits ... on the other hand, if every private were living in a palace, obviously that’s out of balance.
A. But nobody wants less. Our commandant doesn’t want less, I don’t want less. But we’re only getting so much. So guess what: Our leadership has to shepherd us through these tumultuous times. How do we balance ourselves across the pillars of institutional readiness? That’s what we are tasked with.
Q. Is that the position you see yourself in, getting the bill of goods and selling it to the force?
A. Helping them understand that times are tough, and we are busting our backs to make sure they have exactly what we need to sustain our force.
And we are working diligently 29 hours a day, 9 days a week. If you were ever to drive by my house or drive by the commandant’s house, you would see that the lights are on ... We are doing everything we can to make sure we have everything for them. I believe that we’re going to come together as a force. Marines thrive in chaos. They thrive when it sucks. They do. They’re going to come together.
Q. There’s a blog post here by a military spouse named Kristine Schellhaas. She’s been lobbying with [Military Officers Association of America] on the Hill this past week. And she has great respect for all the Marine Corps and for your office, and she was taken aback. She felt it was a conflicting message to what she was doing: knocking on those doors and sharing stories of families in need.
A. I understand, but I hope that the message doesn’t get lost. Let’s not forget who is the United States Marine Corps. We are a war-fighitng organization. And if we don’t get control or slow growth, we are are going to be an entitlements-based and health-care provider, and not a war-fighting organization. We have to remember what we do for a living. We will always care for our Marines and our families with everything we can. With everything we can provide them with.
... I don’t want families to think for one second that we are not slugging it out, we’re slugging it out. And it does hurt us inside. And I’d like to believe everybody knows that. And you’re right. Her open letter was wonderful. So apparently, [I] didn’t do well.