Psychology of Enlisted Marines: Part 1 – Yellow Footprints of a Series

Psychology of Enlisted Marines: Part 1 – Yellow Footprints of a Series

Preface: I love the Marine Corps and Marines. I spent over 10 years in the organization. Any modicum of success and happiness I’ve experienced since high school can be attributed to the opportunities provided by the Marine Corps. This article is “marginally” hyperbolic at times, but I hope the underlying message is able to be unearthed amid the mounds of tongue-in-cheek prose. I believe enlisted Marine training, starting from the moment they step onto the yellow footprints, needs to be reevaluated. This is my attempt at a casual and mostly non-scientific introductory critique of an organization I love and want the very best for.      

The inspiration for this series was an interaction I had with a new Marine checking into my office. As is the case with Marines arriving to Okinawa, they did not have a car or valid license to drive in a foreign country. Enlisted Marines’ modes of transportation during the first weeks (or months) of their stay in Japan were walking (an undesirable option considering the sweltering humidity of Okinawa), the Green Line--a free bus system that circulates through all the major points of the base in 40-minute intervals--or a senior enlisted Marine who has been deemed worthy of the privilege of driving. The latter scenario was being applied in this instance (less due to benevolence and more a desire of the senior to escape the office).

I had taken the new Marine to the Individual Issue Facility (IIF) aboard Camp Foster. For those unfamiliar, the IIF is simultaneously a friend and enemy to the Marine. It’s here that a Marine receives all the necessary gear for burdensome inspections, creating a cramped feeling in their already small living spaces, and an inevitable headache upon trying to depart from the unit because they have without fail managed to lose some obscure piece of equipment during repeated moves. For all the important functions a Marine might be required to do (rifle range, deployment, field exercise, etc.), they would have to return to IIF or visit the armory to retrieve more gear because the initial issue was only a “basic” one.

Upon arriving at IIF, I brought my Marine to the front counter of the check-in section. The receptionist asked us in a calm and polite manner if my Marine, who was clearly carrying a folder with the notorious check-in sheet, was in fact checking-in. To which I replied in the affirmative. The receptionist then gave a pointed look at my Marine and motioned to a row of shopping carts only a few feet away. They said clearly, “Would you please grab one of those shopping carts and bring it over here?”

It was here the pivotal moment responsible for this article’s conception took place. My Marine remained silently staring at the receptionist for a perceptible amount of time before turning to me and with a plaintive look on their face asked, “What should I do?”

To be clear, their plea for assistance wasn’t, “What did they say?” or “What did they want me to do?” It was clearly a request for guidance in new and unfamiliar territory. The receptionist, a civilian, was asking in a respectful manner for them to perform a task of their own volition. I instructed my Marine to grab a cart and bring it over to the counter, to which they obliged. I then chose to wait outside while they went through the arduous process of receiving the required gear. Naturally, this moment of relaxation in my car was the moment of reprieve I had been seeking when agreeing to take them around base for checking-in. Without a care, I called one of my friends who had recently exited the Marine Corps. We had a good laugh about the incident and discussed how he was enjoying the transition back to the civilian sector.

As I slowly became disenfranchised with the Marine Corps and decided to part ways after 10 years of service, this inconsequential interaction in the IIF kept coming back to me. My Marine at the IIF was not an 18-year-old straight out of high school. They were in their 20s, had lived on their own, balanced work and community college, and had overall been a productive member of society. Yet 7 months in the Marine Corps pipeline left them nervously seeking assistance on how to grab a shopping cart. My mind told me there was something worth exploring here. In part, the Marine’s action served a role in the inner voice’s insistence, but it was also my reaction to the situation. Coupled with the inane quality of the question posed to me by my Marine, it was my reaction that was equally disturbing. The pleading “what should I do” did not offend or exasperate me. Similar scenarios between juniors and seniors were ubiquitous throughout the Marine Corps. When I shared this story with a fellow Marine, they would undoubtedly reply with a similar story. It felt like a common occurrence when interacting with new Marines. We take for granted that new Marines to the fleet are these malleable clumps of clay lacking autonomy and direction. It’s explicitly the job of senior enlisted Marines to help shape new joins and “sustain the transformation” as the Marine Corps publications will often reiterate. What is the “transformation” though and how do we sustain it?

Entry-level training provides the “transformation” part of the equation for Marines. Marines are thrust through 3 months of intense training (boot camp) that seeks to strip away their previous identity as a civilian and replace it with a Marine. Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 6-11D, Sustaining the Transformation (a bit on the nose, isn’t it?) defines the concept of sustainment “as the responsibility of unit leaders to maintain and build upon the values and warrior spirit built by formal schools and entry-level training.” Unfortunately, I would argue the “values and warrior spirit” being built in the enlisted training pipeline leaves Marines mentally regressed in certain areas and sets them up a large portion of them for failure in the long term.

When I was in boot camp, the primary lessons I learned were how to eat quickly, drill, scream, and that I was a nasty little creature. Disclaimer: This part isn’t sarcasm. The majority of a recruit’s time at boot camp is spent being forced through mindless hazing rituals. You’re not allowed to refer to yourself in the first person. You’re not allowed to use the restroom of your volition and sometimes are forced to urinate on yourself for the enjoyment of the drill instructors. A screaming man (who is likely not much older than the recruits) is forcing you to take off your clothes, put them back on, take them off, put them on, take them off again because someone moved too slowly, and finally put them back on. If the drill instructor is feeling especially devious, they’ll have you take off your underwear and send it in a wagon wheel aka pass it to the person right of you until told to stop. Then you’re told to put on your newly acquired underwear. Is that a shit stain in there? Oh well, instant obedience and all. You’ve now put on another man’s sweaty and mud tracked underwear. The values and warrior spirit really starts to permeate the body at this point.

A critic of this opinion will counter that these rituals are integral for building discipline and camaraderie (unity in suffering). As soon as you leave boot camp though the hazing previously glorified as a tool for discipline is now a punishable offense and greatly frowned upon—progressively more so with the passage of time. In hindsight, Marines often share boot camp horror stories for years to come. Those memories resonate with them—how their drill instructors made them *insert outrageous story of physical/mental abuse* are badges of honor for years to come. Take the scenarios I provided above for instance. If I told them to another Marine, without fail they would provide a counter story to highlight how their boot camp experience was just as, if not more, grueling. Older Marines will constantly belabor how much worse boot camp used to be with the hackneyed preface of “back in my day.” Where stories abound, things the majority of new and old Marines are lacking include knowledge about proper dietary habits, sustainable physical training regiments, running mechanics, martial arts fundamentals, more than surface level understanding of leadership philosophies, etc.

Undeniably, people much more intelligent than I and with considerably more experiences have given these matters due thought. There must be a balance between financial costs, time, and safety when designing the boot camp training matrix. I don’t want this post to be interpreted as “boot camp bad because they mean” dribble. There are plenty of moments of legitimate training and character molding in boot camp, but they are constantly watered down with empty space filled with nonsense. At the end of boot camp, Marines so battered down by ceaseless hazing and stripped of their autonomy ultimately arrive at the fleet just like that: abused robots with no sense of independence. And who is responsible for training new Marines to the fleet? Marines only a year or two removed from the same environment. We have a recipe for disaster that begins to reflect in the hard numbers of attrition and retention that I want to briefly touch upon in this post, but intend to delve further into at a later time.

The RAND Corporation is an American nonprofit global policy think tank created in 1948 by Douglas Aircraft Company to offer research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces. RAND’s 2020 “Predicting 36-Month Attrition in the U.S. Military” found that by the end of 36 months, total attrition was about 18.5 percent in the Marine Corps. For those unfamiliar with military life, the standard contract is 48 to 60 months. So, we have nearly a 1/5 attrition rate of Marines finishing their first obligated contract. On a more technical/benefits related note, 36 months is the threshold for a Marine becoming qualified for the GI Bill. So, 1/5 of Marines are returning home early without one of the greatest boons offered by the military to help young men and women assimilate back into civilian society. Couple this with the Marine Corps’ historical lowest first enlistment retention rate among the service branches. Roughly 70 percent of Marines are not retained past their first enlistment. This statistic was previously available but has gained more notoriety upon the publication of the Marine Corps Commandant’s “Talent Management 2030” report. The report provides a positive spin on the percentage:

“The massive annual personnel turnover that the Marine Corps oversees is not the result of widespread disinterest or incompatibility on behalf of Marines who might otherwise reenlist. Instead, it is a consequence of service decisions made more than a generation ago to adopt a “recruit and replace” personnel model rather than an “invest and retain” model. While those decisions may have been appropriate in their day, the assumptions underpinning them are no longer valid.”

The Marine Corps unquestionably has to follow a unique business structure—at the end of the day it’s a government owned expeditionary warfighting institution, one of few in the United States. But 70 percent turnover? Nearly 20 percent premature attrition? The numbers are difficult to accept as a genuine gameplan. My anecdotal experience with Marines exiting the Corps leans more towards the “disinterest or incompatibility” end of the seesaw versus mass exodus driven by headquarters.

This jumping-off platform sets the stage for other problems plaguing the Marine Corps’ enlisted ranks—retention and attrition, injury rates, education opportunities for enlisted Marines, the quality of the SNCO community, etc. The tone and how Marines are oriented in boot camp is the foundation on which all these problems are built upon. History has shown the Marine Corps to be a successful organization in the past, but like the Commandant and many others, I think there’s room for improvement as we move into the future. I hope to explore each of the aforementioned areas in greater detail moving forward with this series.

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