MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Virginia ― More than eight decades ago, the Marine Corps had a special kind of diversity problem.
The English language and even the best codes devised by military thinkers could be broken by adversaries such as the Japanese military conquering the Pacific.
War was on the horizon and Marines needed a solution.
A handful of jarheads went to the Navajo Nation, a people who only a few generations before had been defeated and imprisoned the U.S. military. The Marines got four volunteers ― Navajo warriors ― to run through training.
Those four passed the test. The Marines didn’t give them any real information about their top-secret plan. They asked them to return to their lands and bring back more.
They went through the same wartime training as all other Marines in their own platoon.
“And all they did was have some of the highest scores, objective scores ― rifle range, physical fitness, drill, martial skills ― that we ever saw,” said Marine Lt. Gen. David Bellon, head of the Marine Corps Reserve.
More than 400 Navajo warriors would become Marines, serving at the front of some of the Corps’ most storied and bloody battles, such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu and Iwo Jima, Japan.
They would be known as the Navajo Code Talkers.
“That’s what diversity and inclusion looks like,” Bellon said.
In 2022, Bellon, who is white, and his staff have taken on their own way of bringing diversity into the force and strengthening war-fighting.
It’s a program, launched just a year ago by Bellon, called the Diversity Aimed Officer Program.
This year, his staff selected 40 Marines out of the more than 100 applicants of enlisted reservists to travel here to peek behind the curtain to see what it takes to become a Marine officer.
Numbers back the initiative.
The Marine Corps had the lowest percentage of both Black and Asian members, both officer and enlisted, a 2020 report by the Council on Foreign Relations noted.
It also has the lowest percentage of female members: 9% as compared with 19% in the Army and Navy and 21% in the Air Force, as of 2018 data.
Within the Marine officer ranks, 16% are female, according to the report.
The Corps does have the highest percentage of all the services of Hispanic members, which also is higher than the civilian workforce percentages.
The Corps is 58% white and 42% minority, a July 2021 Marine Corps Gazette article, co-authored by Lt. Gen. David Ottignon and Brig. Gen. Jason Woodworth, noted.
Diversity among enlisted Marines between 2010 and 2020 grew from 33% to more than 45%, while Marine officer diversity percentages nearly doubled, going from 16% to 34%.
The Corps’ talent management teams have launched multiple lines of effort and studies in recent years analyzing recruitment, accessions and retention, even scrutinizing military occupational specialty assignments at places such as The Basic School, where Marine officers are assigned job fields.
The DAOP trip took the Marines over the course of a few days this past week to various training areas, visit to the Officer Candidate School, The Basic School and other areas that dominate the lives of future officers as they slog through the demands they face.
Col. Reginald McClam recently took command of The Basic School. The career infantry officer gutted through the training at the school he now leads and then on to Infantry Officer Course before multiple deployments and command assignments.
When he was a young lieutenant and later a war-fighting instructor as a captain, he was one of only a handful of Black Marines.
“I think I was pretty oblivious what I knew is I needed to be a good coach a good mentor a good officer and produce quality, lethal graduates from The Basic School,” McClam told Marine Corps Times.
The colonel commended the Reserve program. First for the simple reason that its aim is to retain talented enlisted in the service.
McClam also did a separate tour at Quantico, Virginia, in Manpower and Reserve Affairs, where his job focused on enlisted retention.
“It was tough to watch Marines go to the Army National Guard and other services,” he said, knowing that those Marines already were imbued with the Corps’ culture.
“So, programs like this allow us to keep that talent and utilize them in a more varied role,” McClam said.
Between the variations of reservists, from Individual Ready Reserve to those serving in uniform each month and on activated orders, the three-star has a ready-made audience of 100,000 Marines to tap into.
As he told Marine Corps Times, that’s 100,000 people who already know and have served in the Corps’ culture, already are tactical athletes and are likely balancing challenging lives working both civilian and military jobs while often pursuing an education.
Paving the way
Sgt. Fabiola Alexander lives that juggling act.
The infantry sergeant and wife of another infantry Marine, Alexander works as the training chief for Combat Logistics Battalion 23 in Lathrop, California. And she’s raising two small children while also attending The Citadel online for a degree in tactical strength and conditioning.
Why add officer training to that already full plate?
As one of the first Marines to go through the Corps’ integrated infantry training in 2013, she’s looking for chances to pave the way for younger Marines and show them they can do it too.
This visit has helped educate and motivate her.
“Being able to see other people doing these opportunities at an older age, having families, it’s possible, people have done it and you can do it too,” she said.
That’s some of what Bellon and his staff, such as Marine Forces Reserve Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ruiz, want to encourage.
The senior enlisted Marine sees the program as a potential snowball.
“Those 40 Marines will go back to their units,” Ruiz said. “They’ll spread the word about what it looks like to be a Marine officer.”
But a challenge they face comes in perception, both inside and outside of the Corps, Bellon said.
Diversity initiatives can be threatening to veterans and senior Marines.
“Because somehow they make a leap to inferring a lowering of standards,” Bellon said. “It’s perceived as a threat.”
The three-star applauds the devotion to high standards, but that’s not what’s happened, he said.
“We exist to win battles, I can’t get any more direct than that,” Bellon said.
And to win on today and tomorrow’s future battlefield, an all brains on deck approach is needed. Much like the recruiting of the Navajo code talkers.
“First, we have to communicate sincerity,” Bellon said. “Convince the force, convince the leadership of the force that this isn’t some knee-jerk reaction to some perceived social agenda. That this is the right thing to do as Marine leaders.”
And Bellon admits, there is skepticism among leaders.
“They feel, they perceive they’re being shoveled a lot of agendas that doesn’t have a lot to do with war-fighting,” Bellon said.
Also, in the mix is to reach underrepresented populations, such as Alexander, who is of Hispanic heritage.
But, with an all-volunteer force, recruiters and those in uniform must show prospective members that they’re wanted and that the process is fair, Bellon said.
For this program, he said, the idea was to take enlisted Marines from those underrepresented populations, bring them here and show them what it takes. This is to show them that the demands are real, much will be expected but that they can do it.
“Because being a Marine officer should be very hard and you better prepare for that and you better be all the way down for the cause,” Bellon said.
Sgt. Kelvin Cabrera was born and raised in the Dominican Republic until he was 13 and his family moved to Miami.
Shortly after high school he decided a way to give back would be to serve. Neither he nor his family knew much about the Marine Corps.
“I didn’t know any better,” he said, laughing. “And I’m glad I didn’t.”
The personnel administrator with 4th Civil Affairs Group, Hialeah, Florida, had planned to put in a package before taking this tour.
But the trip cemented that goal.
“This is an eye opener to get a look at and to ask myself, ‘Do I have what it takes?’” he said.
During a talk in one of the conference halls here, McClam asked the 40 Marines visiting from the DAOP initiative, only a couple of days into their trip if they might submit an officer package.
More than three-quarters raised their hands.
Bellon isn’t counting numbers yet. He expects the initiative to change with the next commander. If, in the next few years, 1,000 out of the 100,000 put in paperwork and compete to become officers, that would be a huge win.
“It’s a tiny little effort, it’s a sliver of the overall thing, but what we weren’t going to do was sit around and admire the problem on our watch,” Bellon said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.