TO THE COMMANDANT OF THE MARINE CORPS
Monday, 24 June 2013
Sir, this letter is offered in the public forum for widest visibility by Marines, Marine families, and supporters of the Marine Corps worldwide - as contentious issues rage threatening to destroy the Marine Corps they love. And the Marine Corps our nation wants for defense - and needs for defense more than the typical citizen understands and appreciates. My letter is in content and tone - civil, candid, and most assuredly respectful. Consider it a field report, a situation report.
We met, once - at the time you were the Commanding General, 3rd Marine Air Wing. You'd have no call to remember me - ours a brief introduction and chat (we discussed a common interest - VWs - and you told a fond story or two of your beetle bug of lieutenant days) at a Purple Foxes change of command reception (an OCS and TBS platoon mate had just handed over the squadron's colors).
My wife and parents were there, too. We, all of us, were impressed by your casual, welcoming way, and friendliness. Gracious and attentive you were. It was clear more stars your destiny.
But the commandant's chair - a lightning bolt. The qualifications, experience, and potential to earn such duties noteworthy for any Marine - always first and foremost a rifleman. Now our Commandant is a rifleman with the skills to fly aircraft. As an aside, my brother started as a Marine aviator (AV-8A), finished Navy (A-7; F/A-18). From hornet training days, you may remember him, "Duke", an instructor at the Strike-Fighter Weapons School Atlantic, Cecil Field. He remembers you, and call sign, too. At heart, he too ever remains a Marine, a rifleman first then aviator.
I, as all Marines, active or not, have been watching; closely. The daily stresses and strains and innumerable multidimensional complex problems, while Marines are training and fighting and dying, crossing your desk is practically unimaginable to me. Especially when considering the current political climate, budget cuts, disillusionment and anger and more enveloping our country and Corps. No Sir, I cannot imagine.
However, one topic has been of particular interest - women in combat; women in ground combat units (infantry). Closely following the news and what comes my way from Marines and other credible sources, there's no question the political aim is to make this insane idea a reality. As reported in the news during the past year or so, early testing of our women Marines physical strength and endurance has not supported the cause. Nor have the few courageous young women who voluntarily challenged the Infantry Officers Course. Their efforts laudable but the outcome expected. You and other top leadership avow standards will not be weakened. But then creeps in dialogue of equality and 'gender neutrality' (a nonsensical term and more so idea).
There is no need to elaborate on the matter for you certainly know the issue, and all its tangents, far better than I. And, there's no doubt you are receiving advice and mail aplenty.
Then last week in one of the Early Birds there was mention the Commandant of the Marine Corps has been given reprieve until 2015 to provide recommendations up the chain of command regarding the assignment of women in ground combat (infantry, et al.) units.
Stunning! Perplexing. Dumbfounding. Why not a decision today?
I know you have seen the video of one of your predecessor's, General Robert H. Barrow, USMC (27th Commandant), sworn testimony - addressing women in combat (ground and aviation) - before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1991. If not already, that YouTube video should be on a continuous play loop on whatever viewing device of every Marine general officer. And the generals should be showing it to every policy maker and law maker with whom they cross paths.
His words explaining the difference between law and policy germane. And his grave concerns about policy makers, who come and go, forcing the military to do things not because they're the right things to do but because they can make them do them correct, and troubling. And so goes inane law, too.
But our Corps is an institution of rich tradition built from the sacrifices, sweat, and blood of generations of Marines. Are agendas and whims, during a hiccup in time, to conquer what no enemy has been able to do - destroy the Marine Corps?
General Barrow's closing comments as to predicting the destruction of the Marine Corps if persisting to push women down into the ground combat element is one of the most sobering opinions ever thrust upon my ears - my eyes, too. Not to mention heart and soul. What pain those thoughts, much less words, surely caused him. When a 41-year veteran of three wars, command in all three, and awarded sundry high-level decorations for valor in combat speaks, dead or not, it's time to pay close attention. And take notes. He just might know what he's talking about.
Not even two years later then Major, now Colonel (USMC, Retired), Arthur J. Corbett, wrote a masterpiece (published in the January 1993 issue of our Gazette) addressing this still contentious matter of open homosexuality. He titled it, 'Disband the Marine Corps'. General Barrow was moved to send a written word of praise - "Bravo!" - on his four-star CMC stationary. That a long retired commandant was stirred to act roars volumes. Loyalty. Think about it, in 1993 a line was redrawn and in less than 20 years it was erased.
I watched the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' Each time you spoke, I wondered, "Has he read Major Corbett's article?"
From the spectator's seat, the feigned neutrality of debate was insulting. From twisting of the DoD 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' survey of the force and spouses results to dismissing voices of young infantrymen from the field, it was clear, at least on television, their decision had been made. And that decision for repeal before the first word of testimony. Time, and money, wasted.
What's to become of America's United States Marine Corps?
I write asking that question on behalf of many Marines, especially our dead who died whether during training or in battle. The concern is - despite remarkable men and women continuing to volunteer and train and fight and die - our Corps is morphing into something not adherent to the principles and morals and values that served as the foundation for building the toughest and finest fighting force known to man. The sexual assault problem quite disturbing though not surprising yet relevant but best suited for another conversation. Will placing men and women in closer proximity solve the problem? Might spraying jet fuel on a burning aircraft douse the fire?
Open homosexuality and women in combat units has proven to be disruptive to good order and discipline and unit cohesion. As such, it follows combat readiness and effectiveness are degraded. I first experienced and witnessed this as a lieutenant while shipboard and forward deployed and have never forgotten the lesson. Just because someone says these matters are not problems and can be worked around does not mean they are not problems, serious problems, without acceptable solutions; not when it comes to life and death - in training or combat.
Today, young officers, male and female, are thoughtfully writing, publicly (I read the Gazette faithfully), of their experiences in multiple combat tours. With rare exception, they are saying, with sound logic and supporting fact, women in ground combat units is not a good idea. These are the real field tests. They are not some gender-normed, carefully orchestrated, nor sanitized PT or field exercise. Is anyone listening to them? Or, are the messengers being humored then killed?
And all the while, the silence from senior officers, general officers, noted and deafening. Surely the majority vehemently oppose women in ground combat. I'm perplexed as to why there have not been retirements and resignations, the expected acts of gentlemanly protest, to honor our Corps. If that's happening, it's happening quietly. But that's not good for morale. Marines expect overt leadership - out front.
The words escape me to heap platitudes upon today's young Marines - their courage and heroism under fire. Magnificent! Incredible! But new adjectives must be invented. Their cycle - training for combat, combat, training for combat, more combat - that was not the paradigm 33 years ago. Awesome, they are!
But for how much longer will our Corps draw the finest of Americans seeking to be elite among the elite if our Corps is no longer elite? With elite characterized by demanding standards of moral and physical excellence that lead to discipline and pride; hallmarks of a Marine. Bite by bite the ant eats the elephant. Perhaps it's not a problem today but rest assured it will be tomorrow when the distinction between our Corps and society-at-large is nothing more than a uniform - which does not a Marine make.
After much thought and angst I made the decision a couple of years back to no longer actively encourage service in the Marine Corps. That decision was not easy. It still haunts me.
To explain briefly, uncomfortable with open homosexuality and women in combat, the culture is no longer recognizable to what I knew as a young Marine. As such, I do not believe I'm a credible source for the experience(s) a young person entering service today can expect. And I would certainly not want anyone enlisting nor pursuing a commission on my strong recommendation and then find themselves unhappy, especially from a moralistic vantage point, and coming back to me with, "Sir, it's nothing like you said."
I know Marines who have made a like decision. Today when speaking of my uniformed days to a youth, I explain what my experiences were and that they may not, most likely will not, be the same for you. You'll have to investigate, speak with young Marines, and then make your own decision, I tell them. With that approach I am comfortable.
Pardon, but allow me to offer some truth - an observation and a suggestion.
The observation - enough social experimentation on the backs of Marines, and Marine families. It's an injustice to every man and woman, past and present, who has earned the title "Marine" and the right to wear our uniform adorned with the eagle, globe, and anchor. It is an unnecessary burden on and a distraction to families - who with too much frequency are sending their warriors into danger to face an enemy - and supposed 'friendlies' at forward operating bases, combat outposts, and in the rear (if such a place exists) - trying to kill them.
Leadership is tough. And no doubt, at the top, it's tough and lonely. Again, your duties are difficult to comprehend. Nor would I want them - long days and sleepless nights without a doubt. However, regardless the level, challenges are solved by doing what is right for the right reason(s). Our Corps Values serve as the foundation but the complete recipe for the solution they are not.
The suggestion - well understanding civilian control of the military, cease, immediately, the testing of women for service in ground combat units. Strength and endurance is only a small variable in the equation and not the most important. Marines know that. Will it take a senseless death as proof? It is the mixing of genders that will ever be the problem and for the age of man - for nature rules.
Back to the matter of the 2015 reprieve. Goodness, take a stand. Do your successor a favor - set her up for success. Put this mess to bed, or die trying. Battlefield hill or Capitol Hill - a hill is a hill. Marines take hills!
Enough is enough!
Heritage! Is it important? Of course, to Marines it's sacred yet there's talk but the walk is not in step. One example, hinting of cultural trouble well before your tenure, was brought to my attention more than a handful of years ago - the sign upon entering recruit depot, Parris Island. In short, what stood for six decades that reflected Marine Corps was not destroyed by landscape progress but by ego. Alerts have been in vain - for a human being's name, even a Marine's, is a heady thing. The Author's Endnote details.
I digress, necessarily. But straight talk, someone has to offer it, such as it is.
I have a keepsake from General Barrow's funeral - one of the 19 shell casings from the battery firing honors. The decorative wood lid has his four stars across the top; a brass plate next under reads: ""Rounds Complete" Final Salute General Robert H. Barrow, USMC 27th Commandant 3 November 2008". A gold eagle, globe, and anchor the striking accent. This treasure sits atop my desk just above the computer.
Sir, the old general haunts me. He will not leave me alone - "Colonel, what are you waiting for? I want you to write and write and write; and write without delay. And furthermore, why have you not gotten that Parris Island sign straightened out?" He once commanded the Depot and is restless. He does not whisper. He does not shout. But his voice is clear, strong, and serious. You should watch again and note the look on his face when Senator Warner interrupts him asking for clarification of his service. That's the look.
What am I to do, but salute and carry on, when ordered by another commandant, I met a time or three, who has issued lawful and morally righteous orders regarding the Marine Corps he selflessly served and loves? And had an enormous hand in, along with General Louis H. Wilson, our 26th Commandant, saving the Marine Corps.
I'm sure you recall the public outrage in 1976 about brutal, abusive recruit training. Congress was not happy - and they had every right not to be. I recently read every word of the 1976 hearings (held only 7 years before starting a three year assignment in the Recruit Training Regiment at Parris Island). Ugly. Sobering. But Generals Wilson and Barrow, and a couple of others, stood tall, executed draw sword, and literally saved the Marine Corps. If not for them, I'd not be writing this letter.
Again our Marine Corps is vulnerable. Where are the generals? Why have the generals not closed ranks? These are a couple of the questions asked of me, by Marines, with more and more frequency. And they're asking me only because of this forum. Answers, I do not have.
Thus I, the humble messenger who'd rather be standing before an easel painting en plein air or wading a stream fly casting for trout, write, as candidly and gentlemanly as possible - all in the name of letting you know what your Marines are thinking and feeling. And to put General Barrow at ease, if only momentarily. He's not done with me.
So, let us not ruin our reputation; stain our colors; disparage our motto "Semper Fidelis"; nor tarnish our respected, feared, and revered emblem - each and all validated time and again on frozen, muddy, sandy, swampy and damn bloody battlefields for well over two centuries destroying those who aim to do harm to America! Once lost, each and all impossible to reclaim - though they'll stand represented in command chronologies, history books, and oral histories. As Major Corbett thought in different words 20 years ago, perhaps future generations will read and listen and dream of what once was and ask, "Who were these Marines?"
General Barrow opened his testimony humbly commenting perhaps he'd been rendered irrelevant. Imagine. In comparison, I don't know that I was relevant. But, we share the title "Marine" - 'Once a Marine, Always a Marine!' Relevancy seems more a matter of perspective - with the courage to speak when others will not, or cannot.
Besides, is any Marine ever completely off duty? I've yet to meet one. Our small community is full of Marines who proudly fly our colors - Corps and Country - in front of their homes.
Therefore, complying with the 8th General Order, one of your Marines, on behalf of many, is sounding the alarm of fire and, not or, disorder. The courtesies of the 10th General Order rendered.
Sir, send a public letter to Congress, via the chain of command, and respectfully request to 'Disband the Marine Corps' - to furl our colors out of respect for our Corps - keeping our honor clean - being remembered for what our Corps once was and not what we've become. Should that reasonable request be denied, then ask for a name change - anything but 'United States Marine Corps' and 'Marine.'
Embolden the request, that statement, to Congress with a retirement letter. For as General Alexander A. Vandergrift, USMC, our 18th Commandant opined, "The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps."
What is the destiny of our Corps?
But what is known is our Corps is at a precipice. Now is your time, General.
And your Marines, every living Marine, will follow and support you.
A. F. "Andy" Weddington
Colonel, U. S. Marines (Retired)
(0302 - trained for, never fought)
General Robert H. Barrow, USMC, SASC testimony
'Disband the Marine Corps' by Major Arthur J. Corbett, USMC http://www.tfp.org/tfp-home/fighting-for-our-culture/disband-the-marine-corps.html
Parris Island - now a sign that signals something is wrong.
For nearly six decades the sign greeting visitors, but more importantly new recruits in the middle of the night, was simple, elegant - it was the Marine Corps. Iconic! It merely, but boldly, stated, "U. S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina." And front and center a pair of our majestic emblems flanked a historic area marker.
The sign told the mission of the Depot. And served as the first visual wake up call for arriving recruits.
Sometime in early 2000 force protection measures necessitated the gate entrance be redesigned and this also necessitated moving the sign. It was moved and essentially remained intact. Then sometime in late 2001 the sign was changed and in the process destroyed. Corps history gone; for no good reason.
Names of the commanding general and sergeant major were added front and center along with the words "Eastern Recruiting Region" - our emblems shoved out to the half walls on the flanks of the main sign, perhaps not intended but the appearance, as if they were an afterthought. The message? Individuals not Corps.
Today, the Parris Island sign announces who the commanding general (and sergeant major) is and what he or she commands. So much for tradition, heritage, and humility. But it is the Depot that is important - the Depot is where Marines are made.
Commanders, like policy and law makers, come and go but the Depot and mission endure. The observation is subtle but significant.
Parris Island is clearly symptomatic of a greater problem. Look around the entry to bases and stations across our Corps. They are littered with billboard like signs splattered with names and unit logos. They're distracting eyesores and a safety issue for drivers trying to read them. Why? Symptomatic of greater problems still - of 'me' and 'I' not 'we' or 'us'? So it appears, so is reality.
Many a Marine and more than a few general officers have noticed and so mentioned the Parris Island sign and others. Though tangential, it's relevant.