The Marine Corps has come under intense scrutiny for keeping barbershops open, pushing exercises and thundering on with annual training and fitness test requirements — but individual units and battalions are making real adjustments over COVID-19.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger has empowered local commanders to make decisions with regards to potential relaxed grooming standards, closing barbershops and axing training over COVID-19 concerns.
That policy position has been criticized for potentially putting battalion and unit commanders under pressure to make decisions against public health guidance in fear of retribution from senior brass.
Videos and images over the last month have surfaced of long lines at barbershops, mass formations, and commanders pushing fitness and martial arts training where social distancing is impossible to maintain.
There’s a battle raging on social media among Marines and veterans full of snark, discontent and frustration over what many believe is a common sense solution to shutter barbershops, relax grooming standards and scale back training.
Anecdotal stories and images of legendary Marines like Medal of Honor awardee Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone and shaggy haired Marine Raiders fighting across the Pacific in World War II have been used as ammunition in the brewing Marine culture war to highlight that haircuts don’t equate to victory or lack thereof on the battlefield.
But Berger has doubled down and voiced his support to commanders that he believes Marine leaders are making the right decisions across the Corps for their units and specific geographic issues related to COVID-19.
The daily wash of haircut and training stories have painted an image of a Corps running and gunning with its COVID-19 policy — creating a perception that the Marines have no real strategy to tackle the virus.
The Corps trusts “leaders to make those calls, and we’ve given them the latitude to waive requirements where it’s not practical to meet restrictions,” the Communication Directorate said about barbershops remaining open on Marine bases.
“Because [COVID], like other pandemics, is different area to area, region to region, HQMC [Headquarters Marine Corps] has not said all grooming standards are relaxed for a given period of time,” the Communication Directorate said in an emailed statement to Marine Corps Times.
This has been the Corps’ sticking point for at least a month, not just with haircuts but exercises, training and fitness policies related to COVID-19.
But individual units and battalions are making real adjustments and Marine leaders are trying an array of policies in an attempt to maintain some discipline, readiness and training standards at a time when most of the country is shuttered and a number of troops are cooped up at home or bored in the barracks.
A battalion aboard the Marine base in Hawaii has suspended both the annually required physical fitness test and gas chamber over COVID-19 concerns, according to a policy letter leaked to Marine Corps Times.
A source within the unit has asked Marine Corps Times to withhold naming the battalion due to sensitivities related to COVID-19 issues.
At least three sources within the battalion aboard the Hawaii base have also confirmed the same battalion has relaxed grooming standards and has asked Marines not to visit the base barbershop which remains open.
“My CO [commanding officer] put out policy letters regarding suspension of the PFT and gas chamber, but not on haircuts yet. However, our sergeant major said to stop sneaking off to the f*ckin barbershop. There’s a lot of long hair at unit, even more than usual,” a Marine at the Hawaii based battalion told Marine Corps Times.
The annual fitness test and gas chamber have been suspended until further notice at the Hawaii-based battalion. The unit said in its policy letter that it would conduct a review at the end April to determine whether to extend the suspension.
“The procedural guidance for executing Physical Fitness Tests (PFTs) inhibits Marines from reasonably adhering to public health guidelines to reduce the possible exposure and spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19),” the battalion letter reads.
The policy letter further details that portions of the PFT require “close physical proximity” and a “congested run route used by multiple units aboard the base, all of which make it unreasonable, if not impossible to maintain compliance with public health guidelines," the policy letter reads.
The policy letter for gas chamber also says the annual training requirement “inhibits” Marines from “reasonably” adhere to public health guidelines.
The gas chamber event requires “close physical proximity” and a “cramped chamber” used by multiple units aboard the base, according to the policy letter.
“The chemicals used in the execution of the gas chamber cause an irritated upper respiratory response that generally results in coughing, sneezing, and a general increase in the emission of bodily fluids” that could increase the chance of spreading COVID-19, the letter detailed.
But the Hawaii-based battalion isn’t the only unit making changes. The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing also axed annual training and fitness requirements.
According to a briefing slide obtained by Marine Corps Times, an order from 2D MAW has postponed the following: No PFT fitness test, rifle range, pistol range, gas chamber, Marine Corps water survival training or martial arts training.
“2nd MAW understands the importance of preventing the spread of COVID-19. We don’t make any of these decisions lightly. All of the measures that have been put in place throughout 2nd MAW have been implemented in order to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19,” Maj. Binford Strickland, a 2nd MAW spokesman said.
And a Marine logistics base in Albany, Georgia, also temporarily shuttered its barbershop over COVID-19 concerns.
These are just a few examples where individual units have stepped in to make changes based on specific geographic concerns related to COVID-19 and available base facilities.
The Corps has also taken an extensive readiness hit over COVID-19.
At least two dozen exercises involving Marines have been canceled or scaled back over concerns with the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus.
Several large-scale exercises involving Marines in Europe, the Arctic region and the Pacific — areas critical to address Russia, China and the return of great power competition — have been canceled or signficantly scaled back as COVID-19 continues to disrupt U.S. military operations and planning across the globe.
The canceled training events are a setback for the Corps’ plans to overhaul its force and prepare Marines to fight against more sophisticated and tech-adept forces.
Berger has oft voiced his concern that despite the pandemic the Corps must maintain readiness.
"We train so that we can be ready to go,” Berger, said in a video. “We never get the chance to pick the next crisis, where it happens, when it happens.”
Berger says he’s been asked why the Corps can’t just “stop training” or why do the Marines need to continue “recruit training in the middle of this terrible virus."
Berger responded in the video that when Marines and the Navy are called up by the president to act “we respond immediately."
“So we must continue to train," the top Marine said. The nation relies on the Corps “especially in tough times,” he said.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.