The No. 2 responds
Gen. John Paxton, the Maine Corps’ assistant commandant, posted the following remarks on the Marine Corps’s official Facebook page on Feb. 12 concerning Marine Corps Times’ relocation with the service’s exchange stores:
“As we wind down 13 years of war and prepare for the conflicts to come, we are engaged in a wide-ranging effort to rededicate ourselves to who we are and what we do ... specifically with a renewed focus on the moral, intellectual, physical and ethical fundamentals of our profession of arms.
The emerging reorganization of Marine Corps Exchange and Marine Mart merchandise is but one element of our broader Reawakening Campaign. The intent is to provide ready access to professional military literature and healthy food and beverage choices.”
Reaction to the Marine Corps Times’ relocation demonstrated a clear misunderstanding of intent; therefore, the product will return to its original location pending the outcome and communication of a more comprehensive, purposeful plan based on our Commandant’s intent as it relates to an emphasis on professionalism within our Corps.
Our Reawakening Campaign is too important to have it diminished, or us distracted, by confusion associated with motive or false assumptions. Shelf space will likely be required at some point to make room for healthier food and beverage choices, as well as military literature from the Commandant’s Reading List, Marine Corps University, Marine Total Fitness program and the like.”
Gen. Jim Amos himself, commandant of the Marine Corps, ordered the independent newspaper Marine Corps Times be returned to its prominent location in exchange stores amid growing media attention to its sudden move to an area where it was less visible, said a team of public affairs officers during a Feb. 14 interview.
The telephone interview with Military Times reporter Lance Bacon was conducted in the wake of growing attention to whether the paper was moved from checkout areas to the back of the store because of sometimes critical coverage of Amos and senior leadership. The public affairs officers said that was not the case; that the move was made to “professionalize” the fronts of the stores, including healthier snack choices for Marines and selections from the reading lists of Amos and his wife, Bonnie.
The move attracted strong criticism from media outlets and many Marines; it also received support by some troops and spouses and even Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer. But the public affairs officers conceded the move should not have been made before the results of a comprehensive study on how to best reorganize the stores.
Marine Corps Times questioned its abrupt relocation in a story published Feb. 9, after several weeks of getting only partial, and inconsistent, answers on why the move was made without notice late last year. Gen. John Paxton Jr., assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a statement announcing the paper was being returned to its previous location that there had been “a clear misunderstanding of intent.”
Bacon asked whose misunderstanding that meant, who ordered the paper be relocated in the first place and more. Some responses were provided in an email prior to the interview. The question-and-answer feature that follows was edited for clarity and length. The public affairs officers who participated were colonels Sean Gibson and Chris Hughes; and majors John Caldwell and Shawn Haney.
Bacon: When will Marine Corps Times be returned to its previous location?
Haney: The deputy commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs has directed Semper Fit and Exchange Services Division to ensure there is an immediate return of the transferred publications to their original positions.
Bacon: Gen. Paxton stated that the Marine Corps’ intent “is to provide ready access to professional military literature and healthy food and beverage choices.” Is that to say Marine Corps Times is not considered professional literature as compared to, say, Men’s Health or Us Weekly magazine?
Haney: The directive specifically addressed the movement of for-sale newsprint publications. Other publications continued to be displayed according to the contractual agreements in place with those publications.
Bacon: Were any other publications or items — candy, drinks, tobacco and so forth — moved from the checkout location as a part of this effort to “professionalize” the store front?
Haney: New directives were issued on how and where publications were to be displayed. The directive specifically addressed the movement of for-sale newsprint publications.
Bacon: How did this effort to “professionalize” the Marine Corps Exchange start? Who is in charge of this effort?
Haney: In December 2013, the deputy commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs directed the Semper Fit and Exchange Services Division to determine how to professionalize the front areas of our stores by providing a more polished look. As a result, the store entry merchandising strategy was reviewed and new directives were issued on how and where publications were to be displayed.
Bacon: How long with this effort take? When will it begin? Who will make final determination of the new standard? Will Marine Corps University play a role? If so, what is that role?
Haney: The deputy commandant for Manpower & Reserve Affairs will conduct a comprehensive review and provide an overall plan to meet the commandant’s intent [as it relates to an emphasis on professionalism within the Marine Corps].
Bacon: Was Marine Corps Times’ removal from the front of the story a response to its sometimes critical coverage of the Corps and specifically the commandant?
Caldwell: No. The commandant has sounded the call and that effort includes encouraging Marines to the profession of arms. To facilitate that objective, the deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs has been working with Marine Corps Community Services to examine our exchanges and consider ways to promote professionally oriented materials. This encompasses more than publications, including, for example, the placement of food, snacks and other items marketed to Marines and their families. Accordingly, the Marine Corps will on an ongoing basis look closely at high-traffic areas like the checkout aisles and consider the placement of products that most benefit our Marines.
Bacon: Are you concerned that removing Marine Corps Times from the front of the store created a perception of retaliation and abuse of authority?
Caldwell: No. There are thousands of brands and products for sale in our exchanges. Every day, with little to no fanfare, Semper Fit and exchange services personnel make decisions on product placement.
Bacon: What value does top Marine Corps leadership see in independent media coverage of their decision making?
Caldwell: Every Marine is sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, which includes the guarantee of a free press. The Marine Corps places a premium on independent, professional and responsible reporting. Throughout our history it has been our pleasure to work with some of the world’s premier reporters, photographers and journalists, men like Ernie Pyle and Joe Rosenthal. In more than 13 years of war, the Marine Corps has embedded literally thousands of reporters with our battlefront operations with very few incidents or concerns. By word and deed, we have demonstrated transparency and openness when working with media. But we have historically had to insist that these organizations demonstrate professionalism, journalistic integrity and fairness when covering the Marine Corps.
Bacon: Gen. Paxton’s statement said “Reaction to the Marine Corps Times’ relocation demonstrated a clear misunderstanding of intent.” A clear misunderstanding by whom?
Caldwell: The Marine Corps’ intent with this initiative has been misrepresented by associated reporting around the issue and therefore has perpetuated a misunderstanding by our Marines, their family members and others. This has been noted in recent conversations with Marines and in social media conversations.
Bacon: Fiscal guidance prohibits the use of operations and maintenance expenditures for the purchase of command subscriptions to Marine Corps Times. It does allow subscriptions for a number of other publications. The Pentagon, until the Early Bird brief was discontinued, regularly placed the importance of Marine Corps Times content on par with those publications. What factors led to Marine Corps headquarters’ decision that Marine Corps Times is not of necessary value to Marines to include it with other publications on which O&M funds can’t be spent?
Caldwell: The Marine Corps is operating in a fiscally constrained environment, like all of the services, and will continue to make difficult decisions on how best to use O&M funds. Guidance Headquarters Marine Corps provided on this, however, was not inflexible and specifically said “commanders should also seek every opportunity to discontinue extraneous O&M expenditures.” In a year in which the Corps has downsized by thousands of Marines and furloughed nearly 20,000 of its valued employees, the Marine Corps must make best efforts to focus on those things that increase the effectiveness of its force and simply cannot commit to the unregulated purchase of excessive publications. It is noteworthy that this matter was not correctly represented in Marine Corps Times’ previous reporting.
Bacon: A professional reading list is nothing new. What evidence or data do you have that suggests Marines are not engaging this professional material to the desired degree? What evidence does the Marine Corps have that placement at these checkouts will change Marines’ response?
Hughes: Our leadership wanted a more holistic approach, and they wanted a holistic approach to look at this prior to the movement. I think, suffice it to say, the movement of Marine Corps Times was premature to any completed study or analysis. And the commandant recognized that immediately and said let’s get these guys back up front right back where they were, but he still expects a completed, thorough analysis that quite frankly could find you located somewhere else in the exchange.
The analogy I always use is what does the checkout line look like at the Olympic village? What does the checkout line look like at the Seattle Seahawks training area? What products are immediately available for these athletes? I’ve been doing this stuff since 1988 and the exchange line hasn’t changed at all. So maybe instead of the 500-calorie Snickers bar and the purple Monster, maybe I ought to be buying a protein bar and a mineral water. And picking up a copy of “Message to Garcia” instead of Maxim. That’s the holistic look our leadership wants us to take and it wasn’t taken, for whatever reason. And were going to hit the reset button and take another look.
Bacon: You didn’t move the Snickers or the Monster energy drinks. You named Maxim, which is not going to move. And by identifying things that might not be, in your mind, healthy or professional for people, you’ve lumped Marine Corps Times in that group. I’d like to understand that.
Hughes: Our senior leadership wanted a study, wanted the focus group, and that’s what they’ve tasked us to do. And that’s what they understood would take place prior to articles being moved. And they’ve taken all of us to task to put the rigor to it, to do the focus group, the discussion. You know what, all of these products would remain in the exchange. No one is banning, no one is prohibiting, we are just saying, “what is immediately available for the corporal that has 30 minutes to jump in the exchange prior to going back to work, what do we make readily available to him or to her?” And to sit down and look at it holistically, study it and come up with some facts, some bona fide facts, and [understand the] desires of our young Marines. Like I said, none of this has changed since 1988, so let’s look at it and gather some facts and do some focus groups and figure out the best service we can provide for these Marines.
Bacon: Who is making the determination about what Marines want and or need?
Hughes: The exchange services are here to provide a service to our Marines and their families, first and foremost. A profit, unlike Target, the bottom line is not the most important factor for all our exchanges. When you look at some of the most profitable items in the exchange: firearms, ammunition, alcohol, a lot of these items are placed not in a readily accessible area. You must go to the rear of the exchange in Quantico to access the gun counter.
Bacon: Well, that’s a law. What role is the preference of individual Marines and families going to play in your study?
Caldwell: I think that is an answer to be determined by the operational planning team that is going to be working this. But the review is supposed to be comprehensive. That’s what I’ll tell you. That’s the direction and the guidance that has been provided.
Bacon: When the decision was made to move Marine Corps Times, was the commandant made aware of it and the details contained therein?
Hughes: I’ll jump on that one. You know, the commandant is concerned with, the commandant, let me just gather my thoughts for a second. When he became aware of this issue, he’s the one that directed get the Marine Corps Times back to the front. He understood the impression that this would have with many, and that was certainly not his intent. He wants a holistic look at how we do business. What product is here, immediately available for our Marines and why. And a holistic means, focus groups, discussions, an ongoing process, not just somewhat immediately moving an individual product. And he recognized how this would be perceived and quickly said “my goodness let’s get this back to the front until we can complete a thorough study.”
But having said that, where your product is ultimately placed is still yet to be determined. And the thing that’s a little troubling in having this conversation with you is, it’s his exchange. Ultimately, our Marine Corps senior leadership set up these exchanges to support Marine families, but it is our Marine Corps exchange. And as I look at it over the course of my career, a number of products that were made available when I was a junior Marine are no longer in there for a number of reasons, some good and bad.
Bacon: Back to the fiscal guidance: It specifically says “commanders are prohibited from using O&M to purchase commercial publications focused primarily on local or special interest matters” and gives examples including Marine Corps Times. Can you explain why the Los Angeles Times is acceptable for a Marine command to purchase but Marine Corps Times is not?
Caldwell: The word “should” is in there, not “shall.” The quote from the fiscal guidance is not inflexible. It’s open to interpretation. The examples were the Economist, Aviation Weekly, obviously the Financial Times and the Military Times, because it is narrowly focused on the military. Now those other publications cover military issues as well as Marine Corps issues. So it’s just saying, make the choice. You have this much money to spend. We recommend that you limit all of the applications that you subscribe to, and here’s some examples of how to differentiate between ones, you know, some and others.
Bacon: So commanders are not forbidden from purchasing Marine Corps Times at their discretion with O&M funds?
Caldwell: They are recommended not to. If they come up short on the books and they say look at all these extra points you been spending your money on, they’re going to have to explain that.