. . . they're getting out. Today's junior ground officers are less likely to accept the unpleasantness of non-fleet tours. Inefficient maintenance and supply systems, coupled with a perceived hostility toward candor, are not helping matters, either.
Factual, perceptual, or otherwise, the common thought across the Marine Corps today is that a mass exodus of quality junior officers is under way. Easier to illustrate within the aviator ranks, it is explained away with the "Airlines are hiring" thesis. The factors contributing to the departure of junior ground officers, however, appear to be far more subjective and difficult to isolate. Whether the Corps actually is losing these superior officers at the cyclic rate is debatable. We all learned some time ago through the Commandant's e-mail that, indeed every company-grade officer in 3d Battalion, 3d Marines, had not resigned. The data presented by Headquarters show the departure rate to be slightly up from recent years but fairly consistent with cycles over the past three decades.
These statistics represent the quantity side of the matter, but they cannot capture equally the quality of officers deciding to stay or go. In fact, the high augmentation rate makes staying a nearly individual decision in most cases, instead of the quality-control measure it was during the past decade. Some junior ground officers have been selected for augmentation into the regular establishment and soon afterward passed over for promotion to captain. But we all hailed the "Reserve commission for all" plan, and the promotion system, as illustrated, has proved it can compensate as a short-term quality-control measure.
The departure of junior ground officers as a whole should not be the concern, but rather that of the exceptional junior ground officer. The following thoughts are subjective and not statistically supported, neither are they the product of a contracted Ph.D. rushing to identify his moniker paradigm shift. Rather, my perceptions as to what may be contributing to the departure of junior ground officers are drawn from the San Mateo macro-view, with Camp Pendleton's 62 Area being a crossroads of several ground military occupational specialties (MOSs), and most often the path leading northeast to Twentynine Palms and the honing of our professional skills.
I do not believe that the battalion I serve in is much different from others when I make the observation that the junior officers on board are, as a whole, a superior lot in most aspects. Were augmentation opportunities as limited as they were in the mid-1980s, the competition would be fierce. My past experience always has been that a battalion would have a "feather merchant" lieutenant or two, but that does not appear to be the case today. Certainly, each has strengths and weaknesses, but overall, these junior officers arrive well prepared and eager to lead platoons and companies. With that observation made, what would influence these fine leaders to look beyond the Corps for their calling?
As a former company-grade monitor, I frequently am approached by these officers for the "scoop," and most do not like hearing what I have to say. Many have very unrealistic expectations about serving in B billets outside their MOSs. Granted, we all complained and fought it, but when the crying stopped and the dust settled, we realized that recruit training, recruiting, or even the Headquarters was where we were needed and headed. The thought that "If I can't be the Marine Officer Instructor at Vanderbilt or the attaché to Sweden, then I am getting out," is not that uncommon; in fact, it seems prevalent among junior ground officers. This is not presented as a threat by these officers, but rather with a rational "life is too short not to be enjoying my job" attitude.
It seems to me that junior officers today, to some extent, have difficulty accepting that after your first Fleet Marine Force (FMF) tour, you are going somewhere to pay your dues, earn your spot in career-level school, and with a little luck, return to the fleet for company command—taking the good with the potentially bad. Perhaps the era of officers I represent lacked the self-confidence of today's officers, and it very well could be a reflection of the status quo we observed and were conditioned by as youth. In my case, I watched my father and his peers work a lifetime with the same organization in an intensely loyal relationship, where organizational—not individual—success was sought and heralded. Obviously, I grew to expect the same. In the corporate world today, by contrast, it is far more expected and accepted that no one, particularly a successful individual, will remain with the same organization for a sustained period. Individual goals and advancement far outweigh organizational loyalty or success in most cases. Some employment specialists would say that in today's environment, if you are not seeking your next position after just a few years with a company, you are well behind the power curve.
This is in no way to question the loyalty of the junior ground officers I have observed; they would jump on a hand grenade to save any Marine. Rather, they are far more fluid toward their calling/career in life than perhaps those who preceded them. To believe that they are not influenced—right or wrong—by this current corporate thought would be foolish. Most do not see leaving the "certainty" of the military for the unknown as a significant concern, but rather view staying within the confines of the military as a far greater unknown with which to be concerned.
Most appear to possess sincerity and great piety toward the "needs of the Corps," but not beyond the scope of their immediate assignment. Consider the case of one young lieutenant, who is performing exceptionally well supporting a Marine expeditionary unit (special operations capable) battalion landing team. He is selected for augmentation, yet chooses to turn it down, explaining that he is in the best billet he can ever expect to serve in while in the Marine Corps; and though he has no definitive plans, once back from deployment he is moving on to a yet-to-be-determined pursuit outside the Corps. No degree of counseling can sway his perception, and despite the uncertainty he faces once out, he believes the unpleasantness of any non-FMF tour far outweighs the opportunity he would undoubtedly have in the future. His argument is equally compelling, and further complicated by changes in retirement and benefits, as well as the promotion rate changes of the future and their potential impact on returning to the fleet sufficiently junior to command a company.
Although operational tempo has been highlighted in the press—particularly by our brothers in arms, as the Army and Air Force deploy as never before—it does not appear to be an issue with our junior officers; in fact, they thrive on it. On the other hand, it forces them to face the realities and frustrations of a system of supply, procurement, and maintenance that is encumbering, unresponsive, and lacking in the flexibility to adequately support this heightened tempo and the demands on equipment that it brings. True, missions are accomplished and readiness levels are maintained. I have not served in a battalion that enjoyed a higher readiness rate than I do today. However, the efforts required from maintenance and supply Marines down to the wrench turners are greater by far than I have ever observed. Nothing with the existing system is simple; it requires enormous effort and savvy to facilitate its keeping pace with the present operational tempo.
One has to believe that junior officers engage this system and see firsthand its laborious and intensive inefficiency, and recognize that it forces them away from their most vital tasks as platoon and company commanders—mission accomplishment and the welfare of their Marines. This concern is not one shared by most of their civilian counterparts, where such inefficiency would lead to certain failure. The crumbling garrison infrastructure-and increasing frustration as these leaders see their Marines in conditions far below the DoD or any recognized standard—compounds the disheartening effect. Despite future military construction plans, which often are presented with great fanfare, the lack of immediate measurable progress is seen by most of these officers as no progress at all.
Most important, there is the matter of candor. I believe it is hands down the greatest factor contributing to the departure of quality junior ground officers. I doubt that any "card-carrying" Marine today does not comprehend and fully support our core values, along with the tenants of integrity, responsibility, and accountability that form their foundation. Even before the rejuvenation of core values, back when we were somehow adequately guided in our duties by strict adherence to leadership principles and traits, nearly every Marine considered integrity the most vital trait of all. As unwavering as our expectation of integrity is, however, junior officers perceive a void between integrity and its relationship with candor.
Certainly, truth and honesty are paramount, but frankness is not always an equally accepted trait throughout the Corps. Too often, candor is met with hostility, overreaction, is perceived as "malcontent," or is interpreted as questioning a commander's decision.
In actuality, candor should be not only encouraged but expected—if not demanded. It must be an integral part of any staff planning evolution, and most important, present as a commander formulates his decision. Once the commander makes his decision and puts it into action, continued candor remains vital—although it is never a means of justifying less than full and vigorous support of the commander. Integrity without candor, the "if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all" approach, in no way prepares us for or wins wars. Its absence often leads to a "politically correct" interpretation of actions or events, facilitates the perpetuation of a flawed effort, or allows a reinfestation of micromanagement within the ranks. We all are quick to jump on the "people must be allowed to make mistakes" bandwagon, but too often we quietly caveat this with the thought, "As long as they're not my people."
Junior ground officers, both exceptional and poor, are departing the Marine Corps, but for reasons far different from just ten years ago. Rather than concerning ourselves too intensely with pinpointing the causal factors, we should accept the spirit, undaunted by uncertainty, and the willingness to embrace change that most of these officers possess. If harnessed, it aligns itself well with the characteristics of innovation, foresight, and out-of the-box thinking that will be needed within the officer ranks as the Marine Corps moves into the 21st century. From as early as The Basic School, we must ground our junior officers in the leadership principles and traits, core values, and exemplify by word and deed the overarching ideal of the "needs of the Corps." They need to be exposed to the realistic career path most will be sent down; few will feel the heat beneath the spotlights of the ceremonial Marine Barracks at 8th & I, but many will graduate a recruit series or crunch the final shipment numbers toward a monthly recruiting mission.
Finally, candor—with its priceless value in training, planning, and execution; from The Basic School MOS mixer to the combined arms exercise hot wash-up—must be nurtured at every opportunity. The warrior ethos, patriotism, and desire to be a part of the best have drawn young men to seek commissions in the Marine Corps today, as they have for the past 222 years. Similarly, though the influences that lead junior officers to depart the Corps have changed over the years, they are in no way a new-found consideration. In the book The Ray Davis Story, General Davis, the epitome of officership, notes that while at Quantico upon the conclusion of World War II, he and his wife watched as countless officers, many of them dear friends, departed the Corps following their few years of wartime service. It would be the only time during his many years of heroic and distinguished service that she would question his remaining a Marine, asking if he was staying because he felt he could not succeed in the civilian sector! A true Captain of the Horse.
Major Hull was executive officer of 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, California, and currently is assigned to the division staff. His article received honorable mention in the Marine Corps Association’s annual Major General Harold W. Chase Essay Contest.