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Commandant links bad behavior by Marines with poor command climates

May. 10, 2013 - 04:32PM   |  
Marine Gen. James F. Amos
Gen. Jim Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, announced new Corps-wide command climate surveys in a May 9 'White Letter.' (Colin Kelly/Staff)
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The commandant of the Marine Corps must “keep the moral and ethical health of our institution front and center” and therefore will confront poor command climates with new climate surveys, he said in a letter to all Marines published Thursday.

Commandant Gen. Jim Amos said Marines must acknowledge that “in some cases, our enforcement of important standards has slipped.” He plans to launch new command climate surveys as soon as July that will assess how good the leadership is in each unit, he said in the letter obtained by Marine Corps Times.

“As we confront the leadership challenges of a Marine Corps that is no longer conducting heel-to-toe combat rotations, the matter of command climate remains a focus point and requires renewed emphasis,” Amos wrote. “There is a disturbingly frequent correlation between Marines who act poorly and units with poor climates.”

The letter was published in the wake of at least six Marine officers being relieved for cause since mid-March. In each case, a general officer lost confidence in that commander’s ability to lead their Marines, officials said.

The letter also comes as the U.S. military grapples with a sexual assault problem that has dominated headlines this week. A Defense Department report released Tuesday said there were 3,374 sexual assaults reported in the military in 2012, up from 3,192 in 2011. In a separate survey, tens of thousands more service members said they have been sexually assaulted and not reported it.

Amos apologized for “the shameful behavior of my Marines” during a House defense appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, saying he believes up to 10 percent of all female Marines could experience some form of sexual assault or harassment. He is determined to change the culture that has led to it, he said.

The letter does not mention sexual assault specifically, but makes it clear he believes commanding officers set the tone and determine the direction of their units.

“A Commanding Officer has the greatest influence in determining whether the Marines in the unit are combat ready, whether they’re honorable, whether they’re forthright, whether they’re focused, and how/whether they uphold our values and virtues,” Amos wrote. “While there are many leadership styles, the result must be a unit of Marines and sailors who have absolute trust in their leaders, and in their competence.”

Amos said he has directed a fresh look at how and when command climate surveys are done, and developed a new survey this month that will aid commanders in assessing the overall health and readiness of their units. The commandant wants the new surveys available for use by July, and mandatory for every new commanding officer. They’ll be used annually thereafter, he wrote.

“Please understand that I am dead set against establishing a zero-defects culture; that is not what I am talking about here,” he said in his letter. “Preparing for combat, with all it entails, remains our number one focus. As such, I anticipate that mistakes will be made and that commanders will learn from them. At the end of the day we are in a people business.”

Still, Amos drew the line for commanders with the letter, saying that they bear the burden for 100 percent of what happens in their command.

“In the most cohesive units,” he wrote, “Marines proudly and willingly share the risks and rewards with their commanders.”

Amos himself relieved Col. Kris Stillings as the commanding officer of Officer Candidates School on April 22, after three Marines died in March in an apparent murder-suicide on the school’s campus at Quantico, Va.

That followed the March 12 removal of Lt. Col. Ned Biehl as commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the April 18 relief for cause of Lt. Col. Aaron Wells, head of HMM-262, out of Okinawa, Japan.

On Wednesday, Brig. Gen. James Lukeman, commanding general of 2nd Marine Division, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., also relieved three officers, including a battalion commander, from their jobs in the wake a training accident in Nevada that killed seven Marines and wounded eight other service members. Lt. Col. Andrew McNulty, commanding officer of Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, was removed along with two subordinates, Capt. Kelby Breivogel, commander of Alpha Company 1/9, and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Douglas Derring, the battalion’s infantry weapons officer.

Their removals came seven weeks after the deadly March 18 training accident at Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. The Marines were conducting nighttime training when a 60mm mortar round exploded in a mortar tube, officials said at the time. They had traveled to Hawthorne from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in nearby Bridgeport, Calif., where the battalion was participating in the last element of a winter mountain training exercise.

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