by Andy Weddington
Friday, 27 July 2012
"Boot camp should be tough, but never brutal." General Louis H. Wilson, 26th Commandant
Depot entry sign, erected circa 1942, as stood for six decades. Sadly, no more.
There are plenty of great things that go on in recruit training. Plenty. More than there's room and time to cite. Dedicated professionals, enlisted and officer, doing their best to make Marines. It's tough work. It's rewarding work. The process for transforming young men and women into Marines is unlike anything in the world. Our sister services envy it. Mothers are marveled by it. Captains of industry would like to bottle it. Yet as explainable as what happens is there's a degree of elusiveness that makes duplicating it impossible. Only those who've earned the privilege to wear our eagle, globe, and anchor and be called "Marine" completely understand. And that will ever be.
Nothing of human design in this world is perfect. And that, admittedly, includes Marine Corps recruit training. It may surprise some to learn that Marines are human--sorry to disappoint. Consequently, sometimes trainers--drill instructors, and supervisors--officers, go awry. And when they do seriously misstep there's call to investigate, analyze, discipline and punish, educate, and implement changes in the aim of prevention. That is, to fine tune, if you will, to add armor to safeguard our magical process. Then, forward march, training carries on until things again go awry. And they do.
I am reminded of the bumper sticker: "To Err is Human. To Forgive Divine. Neither of which is Marine Corps policy." There's some truth to that. Some truth.
For today, some times and things that went awry in recruit training, commitments thereto to correct and prevent, and some perspective from a recent visit to Parris Island...
The platoon of 74 recruits was marched into the brackish water at night, as a disciplinary measure, by their drill instructor. It was not authorized training nor authorized discipline. As the march progressed the water got deep. Some could not swim. Panic ensued. Six recruits drowned in Ribbon Creek--part of the tidal swamp surrounding Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. On that Sunday, April 8th, 1956 something went awry and ever since the date and the name Staff Sergeant Matthew McKeon have tainted recruit depot Parris Island and Marine Corps history. Platoon 71 and the names of the recruits who died live on.
That senseless disaster led to significant changes in Marine Corps recruit training. Most importantly, a general officer was assigned to each depot (Parris Island and San Diego), and a series officer billet was created to serve as the first line of officer engagement to observe all training and closely supervise drill instructors. To be clear, drill instructors, not officers, train recruits. Officers lead and supervise.
Not 20 years later, on Saturday, December 6th, 1975 Lynn McClure, a recruit from Texas at the recruit depot in San Diego was critically injured during close combat training--pugil stick fighting had gone too far. Something went awry. Emergency brain surgery was required. He remained hospitalized and died a few months later on Saturday, March 13th, 1976 having never regained consciousness. In short, for sundry reasons including he should not have been recruited, it should not have happened. But it did happen because there was a breakdown in training and more so in supervision. And so the McClure incident taints recruit depot San Diego and Marine Corps history. His death was a national headline, outraged the public, and thereby garnered high-level political interest including the President of the United States.
While McClure was in a coma, on Saturday, January 3rd, 1976 a recruit at Parris Island by the name of Harry Hiscock from Rochester, New York was shot in the hand--with a rifle aimed by his senior drill instructor. Something went awry. The defense claimed it was accidental. Not only was it an incident of abuse but one of stupidity for a Marine, especially a drill instructor, knows better than to aim a weapon at anyone they do not intend to kill.
Something was awry. There was a problem at the Marine Corps recruit depots.
Shortly after McClure's death, and continuing for several months, Congress conducted investigations and held hearings. The Marine Corps, because of these incidents--things awry--and a troubling trend of recruit abuse, was on the verge of losing recruit training. That is, there was a disturbing sense among our Corps top leadership that Congress could direct a generic recruit training program for all the services and after completion graduates would be arbitrarily designated soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
General Louis H. Wilson, commandant at the time (years earlier he commanded Officer Candidates School and The Basic School), and Lieutenant General Robert H. Barrow (who as a major general had command of Parris Island from 1972-1975 and later promoted to general was Wilson's successor) testified recruit training was vital to the Marine Corps. The generals said without recruit training it would be impossible to make Marines. And so would end the Marine Corps. It was a tenuous time for our Corps. It was the generals credibility and convincing testimony along with a commitment to Congress, actually America, to implement more changes to training, to include additional officer supervisory positions, that training was permitted to continue at the two depots.
A second general officer--assistant depot commander, and a second series officer--assistant series commander were added.
Less than six and a half years after those changes (commitments of 1976) were implemented, I reported to Parris Island for duty, as a series officer, with the Recruit Training Regiment. The aforementioned history, and more, was hammered into all drill instructors and officers. At the time, it seemed ancient history but in hindsight it was not--odd how aging completely changes the perspective of time. Anyway, senior leadership left no doubt as to the importance of recruit training and the seriousness of how close our Corps had come to losing it, and therefore the Marine Corps. Much rested on the shoulders of young drill instructors and officers.
Drill instructors and officers were held to the letter and spirit of the recruit training SOP (Standard Operating Procedure)--detailed and clear. The minuscule "gray" was covered under the "spirit"--if any doubt or question, don't do it, err on the side of caution. Breaches, however slight, were addressed swiftly. Discipline and punishment could be harsh--it was if warranted. It sent a message. Second chances were rare. During three years in a training battalion only a couple reprieves come to mind and they were afforded because the failings proved minor and without malicious intent. It was serious work taken seriously.
As for the series officers, at least one of the two assigned to each series was required to be present for all training. Some training required both officers. No exceptions. And 30 minutes before reveille and 30 minutes after taps a series officer was in uniform and on deck and walking the area. In short, if recruits were out of the rack, a series officer was present. Today the time requirement is 15 minutes.
Series officers reported to a company commander who reported to the battalion commander who reported to the regimental commander who reported to the depot commander. Each commander above the series had an executive officer, and the general an assistant commander. The point being officers were involved in recruit training and officers throughout the chain of command, especially company and battalion, made frequent visits to observe training. And it was routine for the regimental commander and either the depot or assistant depot commander to appear at training. One of the two general officers was always aboard the depot--that was the purpose of committing to an assistant depot commander.
A couple of weeks ago the men (and their families) of F Company, Second Recruit Training Battalion, a remarkable group of Marines who served as drill instructors and series officers during the time frame 1980-1986, gathered for a reunion at Parris Island. The battalion commander was there. The regimental commander was there. One evening a handful of the Marines had opportunity to speak, by phone, to the commanding general of our day--he'd been there if not for a schedule conflict.
Some observations during the three-day reunion...
Watching drill instructors and recruits interact, Marine Corps recruit training, for the good, has not changed much. As they should be, males and females are trained separately--by their own gender. And whatever gender, drill instructors are still loud, intense, demanding, impatient perfectionists who are never satisfied. Ever. Whatever a recruit is doing can always be done better and quicker. And that's good. But supervision is required, still.
There was a conspicuous absence of lieutenants. Where were they? The answer was there aren't many lieutenants in a battalion (a few at most as opposed to more than a couple dozen after the 1976 hearings through the mid-80s) and there is only one series officer--usually a captain. Some training supervision is now, as it was decades ago, done by gunnery sergeants and first sergeants. Gunnery sergeants and first sergeants in the regiment, for all their maturity, experience, skills, and ability are staff non-commissioned officers and drill instructors. Commissioned officers are trained differently and see differently. It's not a criticism. It's fact. That's why there was commitment to a second series officer.
The commanding general, a brigadier (one star) not major (two star) as when there were two general officers, was not aboard the depot--often away tending to dual-hat duties as commanding general of the recruiting region; there's a lot of territory east of the Mississippi River. Recruiting is important business, the most important, and a general needs to be engaged. But so is training important business and a general's presence aboard the depot necessary--the general's standard (red flag with white star(s)) fluttering atop the headquarters building, Barrow Hall, sets a visible tone. And a general officer out and about observing training reinforces that tone.
A week or so ago a retired Marine friend said during the course of a few years--1987-1990--our Corps leadership (successors of Wilson and Barrow), barely ten years after the tense battle to save recruit training, decided to eliminate the second general officer. And a couple few years later eliminated the second series officer.
It's been a short thirty-six years since a couple of general officers who knew what they were talking about made their case, and commitments, in sworn testimony before Congress to preserve recruit training and the Marine Corps. Less than 15 years later their doubled officer supervisory commitments were no more.
And so today, as has been for some time, officer supervision is similar to the post Ribbon Creek and pre McClure model. Hmm. Did and does our Corps believe all is well and abuse has been eliminated in recruit training? Surely not. Was it because time had eased pressure? Perhaps. Was it because of competing priorities for Marines--lieutenants and general officers? Probably.
A wise old general, with extensive manpower and recruit training experience, recently relayed an axiom to me he'd heard long ago: Ever since there's been two Marines there's been a requirement for three. My experience in manpower, and recruit training, second that thought. Understood. But the reduced officer leadership in recruit training troubles that old general--for he knows firsthand the ugly history; he lived it. As it troubles the long retired battalion and regimental commanders and others at our reunion. Some of them, too, lived those ugly days.
Who knows the pressures forcing such decisions from top leadership. They are aplenty, certainly. But it's doubtful the two generals with a big hand in preserving the Marine Corps would have approved--for surely they realized and thoroughly considered competing priorities. They'd been around too long and seen too much to do otherwise.
Strong officer presence in recruit training ensures compliance with training directives, policies, and procedures thereby protecting recruits, and drill instructors, who are, at times, vulnerable when focused on teaching, fall victim to tunnel vision, and good judgement fails; especially during the 'heat of the moment.' And, of course, there is always one or two drill instructors who believe their training and disciplinary methods are superior to what's authorized (e.g. Ribbon Creek). That's reality. How interesting, even sadly serendipitous, the July 23rd, 2012 issue of Marine Times cover story is about recruit abuse at San Diego. And there's more to talk about but in a follow-on Commentary.
So a nagging thought, if not aware of the changes and there's no one now in elective office who remembers the Corps commitments, and with bigger fish to fry, does Congress care? Probably not. At least not until there's a problem--a questionable serious injury or recruit death--that can strike like lightning (I know something about that). And then Congress, moved by the public, will engage, review the history of abuse and promises made, and ask a simple question, "Marine Corps, why have you not been fulfilling your commitments?"
And so what about our Core Values? What about our Corps Commitment to Congress, to America?
And what about Honor and Courage? Though it was their duty, it took courage for generals Wilson and Barrow (and others) to face Congress, admit failings, take responsibility, weather the ferocious storm, and commit to corrective measures, no matter how taxing, to mitigate, as much as possible, recruit abuse. Their leadership a simple example of honorable men doing what was right--with commitment not to merely squelch public outcry and temporarily appease Congress but to permanently fix to better our Marine Corps. Martin Van Buren, our 8th president, is credited with saying, "It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn't." Amen.
Core Values guide the behavior of individual Marines. They are an integral part of entry-level training--at the recruit depots and Officer Candidates School--and education and training throughout service. They are as applicable to a recruit as to a four-star general.
Do the core values guide institutional behavior? Is there relevancy? Of course. It's clear generals Wilson and Barrow thought so. And other generals, too. Marines are the institution--they are one.
The public understands Marines will be injured and killed in training and combat. So goes realistic preparation and war. But the reckless injury or death of a recruit is another matter. As it should be. As it must be. Recruits, still attempting to conquer the challenges of the transformation process under the watchful and critical eyes of drill instructors, are not Marines.
To address all particulars of the incidents cited and issues, including philosophical, regarding recruit abuse in general, and corrective actions taken, in brief commentary is impossible. But the essence is here with the conclusion it's a bit puzzling why supervision in recruit training has seemingly taken a step backward. If that perception is reality, and any argument to the contrary would sure be interesting, then follows the thought is the environment ripe for another ugly incident of recruit abuse? And might generals Wilson and Barrow, though at eternal rest, be troubled and disappointed their Corps did not remain true to their efforts and commitments?
That said, Marines, keeping with tradition, continue to perform admirably on battlefields and elsewhere so there's no question all that's going right with recruit training easily trumps the times things go awry. Dedicated drill instructors and officers deserve the credit. Yet, let's not forget Ribbon Creek and recruits McClure and Hiscock and others are embarrassing institutional facial scars. Like it or not, they are resistant to makeup and will endure. They are reminders. Necessary reminders. And so are reminders the men who handled those problems and implemented measures to preclude them from happening again.
As such, today's leaders must not be absent-minded nor off-handed to dismiss practices implemented to address the not-so-long-ago unflattering past. For it'll take only one terrible incident to open all the old scars. And if generals ever again have to face Congress regarding a horrible case of recruit abuse, their explanations, whatever the extenuating and mitigating circumstances, and remedies proffered, however compelling and passionate, may not again fall upon sympathetic ears. The outcome could very well be fatal. I know many Marines, me included, who hope to not bear witness.
Forward, March! Smartly.
The following impromptu remarks were delivered by Major General Barrow, while in command of the depot, to officers of Recruit Training Regiment, Parris Island, 15 May 1974. They should be included as the Introduction to the Recruit Training SOP. After all, the headquarters building bears his name and he was a significant force in not only saving recruit training but shaping today's Corps. The drill instructors and officers assigned to the regiment would be well served knowing their history. (Note: General Barrow graduated from recruit training and served as a drill instructor in 1942 at the depot in San Diego before attending Officer Candidates School and earning a commission in 1943.)
Pencil drawing by retired Marine gunnery sergeant.
The historical importance of the entry gate. Time to restore it.
Let's begin at the beginning. Private "Jones". Private "Jones" joined his platoon on 7 March 1973 and that act, that offense committed by Staff Sergeant "Smith" that related to things happening to Private "Jones" occurred on 4 May. What kind of recruit was he? What kind of recruit was he? It matters not. Recruits are human beings - and you know it! But there is among some the opinion that if a recruit is not all that he should be, then there is some forgiveness of misdeeds directed against him. I don't buy that. But in case any of you have any misconceptions about what kind of recruit he was - he was a good recruit! He had never been to motivation, he had not been to PCP [Physical Conditioning Platoon], his Recruit Eval Card reflected only one shortcoming - that he could not do the 3-mile run without sometimes dropping out. A condition which needed to be understood - and wasn't. Before we get into the act itself, how was it brought forward that such a thing happened? Again, let us focus on Private "Jones". For those of you who believe that there is some sort of honor attached to not "squealing" - I say to you he did not squeal! He left this Depot an injured man and went back to his wife and went to school. He was that kind of recruit. He picked aviation training and he went to an aviation school and while there his wife, showing great concern over the tremendous bruises on his legs - the black and blue bruises and swelling, asked him to explain why - and he would not say why. And one night they were visited by a friend of his who had been through recruit training with him. When young "Jones" absented himself to mix a drink, his wife pressed the point with this young man. He said, "I'll tell you how he got the bruises - he was beaten in recruit training." Young Mrs. "Jones" sat down and wrote a letter to the President of the United States, and as happens in such instances, it was forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy. And the Secretary of the Navy to the Commanding General at Parris Island. And let me disabuse the thought right now that I understand prevails here and there - or that is harbored here and there - that because it came from on high, some of the things that are being done in this case have a political motive or overtone. Those of you who know me - know better than that, gentlemen - and I am not yielding to any political pressure now or any other time. And none exists - and don't you forget it! And so, the case was investigated.
What happened? What happened? I won't go through all of the preliminaries - I'll begin by telling you my source. I read the investigation. I have talked to the President of the court - which I have every right (reason) to do - not to determine their deliberations or opinions, but to get from him a summary of the evidence presented and the testimony of the witnesses. So I have two sources of information. To say nothing of (some) my personal involvement of talking to the Mother of Private "Jones" three times by telephone - whose major concern was not to seek the punishment of those who had done her son wrong - but to seek to get him to remain in the Marine Corps - which he loves. Which he no longer belongs to. And so it came to pass that on the 4th of May with some preliminaries which are not necessarily germane to this discussion this afternoon, we have the formation of a full platoon of recruits lined up on both sides of the squad bay - and at the direction of Sergeant "Smith", Senior Drill Instructor, Private "Jones" was required to crawl on his knees and on his elbows, with his legs extended behind him through this formation and every man was required to beat him as he did it. He was beaten. One man missed, hit the deck, and broke his hand. Approximately half-way through the formation, screaming in pain, he stopped. Sergeant "Smith" directed two recruits to pull him through the rest of the formation and for the remainder to continue to beat him. So much for that act of premeditated brutality.
Then what follows? Follows an act of conspiracy - to cover up - to cover up. A skillful act. Every technique employed to conceal Private "Jones" from those who might have his injuries revealed and therefore someone properly reporting things. What were some of these acts of concealment? Let's talk about one that didn't take place but which was revealed in the investigation and at the trial. The Drill Instructor considered putting a wig on Private "Jones" and taking him out of the gate in his care to be treated by a private physician in town. He was hidden repeatedly in the head and other places so that the Series Commander or Series Gunnery Sergeant's inspection would not discover him. Which in itself points out a weakness to the system. I hope we do more than just walk through and personally ask a few questions. We want to look in broom closets and heads around here. We have a record of the Drill Instructors keeping recruits in broom closets.
That platoon went to Camp Lejeune the following week. Part of the act of cover-up included taking Private "Jones" out into the woods at Camp Lejeune - get this picture - the Senior Drill Instructor and a Private in the woods. The Private required to take down his trousers while the Senior Drill Instructor administered balm Ben-gay. The platoon was required to conspire and join in this conspiracy to cover up. Finally, it included a threat to Private "Jones" that when you graduate, you have ten minutes to get off of this Depot or I'll have you. And his wife, who wanted to see Parris Island and who had come here for his graduation - he told her we must leave at once - and they did.
Gentlemen, perhaps it would be appropriate for me, at this time, to read to you the Drill Instructor's Pledge. I won't read all of it for we hear the first part recited every time we have graduation and you are familiar with it - about "these recruits are entrusted to my care, etc," and it ends with another part, "I will demand of them and demonstrate by my own example, the highest standards of personal conduct, morality and professional skill." Now do you have a better picture? Now do you understand?
He was brought to trial by a courts-martial composed of officers in the Marine Corps just as you and I are - dedicated, responsible, fair, and this is the same courts-martial which had a month earlier, acquitted a Drill Instructor charged with wrongdoing. This is not some kangaroo court cooked up to "get one of our boys." When the court found him guilty [they] sentenced him to have a BCD [Bad Conduct Discharge], 6 months confinement, reduction to the rank of Private, and a forfeiture of $200 a month for six months. And he is confined! Yes, he is confined! By reason of routine application of standard procedures. You get that? There is no provision made for him being different than a Private or a PFC [Private First Class] or Lance Corporal or a Corporal - or just run of the mill Staff NCO. He is confined - through legal process, not by exception. And you had better understand that! And his convening authority, who is not here this afternoon, as appropriate he shouldn't be, will, I am sure, take action fairly and responsibly. And in time I will review the case - and my review will be fair and responsible. And gentlemen, I have reviewed many - and you have yet to find one who has ever spoken of anything but fairness. Having said all of this, what has really brought me here and it concerns both your Regimental Commander and myself is the misunderstanding - and out of the misunderstanding, a false sense of values that places the sympathy and their sense of morality on the side of the wrongdoer instead of the victim; and to that which we seek to do at Parris Island and the Marine Corps which renders our training fair as well as good.
There are some of you in this room who have expressed the opinion that he got "a raw deal." Now do you believe it? There are some in this room who have willingly or otherwise aligned themselves to that which we have worked so hard to eliminate - malpractice - maltreatment of recruits! There are some in this room who have contributed to something called "The 'Smith' Fund". There is at least one in this room who has solicited for something called a "Smith Fund" and who has attempted to encourage others to do likewise. That, gentlemen, is something I cannot reconcile with any of my 32 years of experience in the Marine Corps. It is a contemptible act of disloyalty. It is a terrible sense of values - if indeed it is a value at all. No wonder, no wonder we continue to have maltreatment that is sometimes, if not condoned by officers, covered up by them. If you are willing to align yourself with the man who did what I have described as having done this afternoon, you should hide your face in shame as well as anonymity which you have sought. And then we have those misinformed Drill Instructors who will not be for long - will they? Who have reacted in various ways and I'm not talking about opinions - you can have your opinion but you will present the facts.
It has been reported to me that among some there is a "low state of morale". What is that? When this was reported to me, I said "You've got it wrong - it is not a low state of morale, it is a high state of anxiety because the only people who need to have their morale low or their anxiety high are those who are in practice of the same kind of training - and they should damn well be apprehensive about what may happen to them." I have never yet understood why, when the legal process of what is right catches up with those who do things wrong, that those who, if they are doing things right, worry about it. When I pick up the paper in the morning and read where ten fat cats from New York City are indicted for failure to pay income tax, I don't start shaking - I paid my income tax - and if there is a Drill Instructor on this Depot who reads about this or any other case in which a Drill Instructor is punished - he has nothing to worry about so long as he is doing his job correctly. And tell them that! And let them get out of this low state of morale, or as I say, high state of anxiety - except those who are doing things wrong - maybe they should remain there because time and justice will catch up with them.
I have said all I need to say. You have the facts and you are going to put it out. In other words, gentlemen, you are going to get it straight and in the process some of you out there who have a distorted view of this case and distorted sense of values - you are going to get yourself straight in the process. Thank you kindly." For a sense of General Barrow's passion, the following video, on a current events matter, pertains: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy--whDNNKk
A powerful message.
The general's son, a retired Marine, told me while reading the remarks, which he had not heard of nor seen before a couple of years ago, he could see his father's demeanor and hear his Southern drawl and tempo along with every single inflection in his voice--it gave him the chills.
I spoke with an officer, now retired, who was in the room during the general's address. He said there was no mistake as to the seriousness of the matter, there was clear understanding, and when done you could have heard a pin drop. No doubt. To his knowledge, when General Barrow did later ask an officer or drill instructor what they knew about the "Smith" case he heard the facts.
Nine years later, during his retirement ceremony in 1983, General Barrow recalled asking graduating recruits at Parris Island what they had gotten out of their training. He felt the best response was, "Sir, the private will always do what needs to be done."
You don't instill that kind of attitude and spirit in young warriors by abusing recruits (or Marines). Challenging, tough, demanding training--not abusive treatment, physical nor psychological--creates and sustains physical and mental toughness. Hazing--cowardly disguised in the name of "training" or "initiation," of any sort, is absolutely contrary to leadership and has no place in the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps has two legitimate, time-tested "initiations"--recruit training and Officer Candidates School; the only 'rites of passage.' Three years "on the street," as we said in the day, supervising the making of Marines at Parris Island affirmed for me that which General Barrow well knew--when a young man or woman has conquered the institutional requirements and earned the right, privilege and honor to wear the eagle, globe and anchor, and be called "Marine" initiation is complete. And they are a Marine; forever.
Finally, an obligatory word about the entry sign...
The sign, too, sets a tone for the depot--to all who enter; especially recruits arriving in the middle of the night. First impressions matter--whether person, place, or thing. Today's sign is cluttered with unnecessary text and names and our emblems have been shoved aside subordinated to individuals. Today's sign does not set a tone. It can't, it sits aside. It's just a busy structure anyone hardly notices, if at all. It's not Marine-like. It's not Parris Island. And that should not be. Bluntly, it's a damn eyesore and may as well not be there.
The author served in 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island from 1983-1986 (series officer and executive officer, F Company; battalion operations officer; commanding officer, D Company) and as an action officer in Manpower & Reserve Affairs, HQMC from 1996-1999.