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Marine Col. removed as Pentagon's non-lethal weapons directorate chief

May. 17, 2013 - 01:51PM   |  
Col. Tracy J. Tafolla
Col. Tracy J. Tafolla (Marine Corps)
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The Marine colonel running day-to-day management of the U.S. military’s nonlethal weapons program has been removed from his command, Marine Corps Times has learned.

Col. Tracy Tafolla was relieved as director of the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va., on Thursday “due to a loss of trust and confidence,” Marine officials said. Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, made the decision, officials said.

The directorate oversees management of virtually all nonlethal weapons research for the Pentagon, working with combatant commanders to plan and coordinate research, development and acquisition. It will be led on an interim basis by Susan Levine, a civilian who had served as the organization’s principal deputy for policy and strategy. Tryon will eventually select another Marine colonel to take over, officials said.

At least six other Marine officers have been removed from command since mid-March, including another at Quantico, Col. Kris Stillings. Commandant Gen. Jim Amos relieved Stillings as the commanding officer at Officer Candidates School on April 22, after three Marines died in an apparent murder-suicide on the school’s campus on base in March.

Earlier this month, 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 of a training accident with a 60mm mortar system at Hawthorne Army Depot 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.

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.

In each case, Marine officials have provided little explanation for why the decisions were made, saying a general officer had lost confidence in that commander’s ability to lead his personnel.

Tafolla had led the directorate since July 2009, overseeing research into everything from electroshock weapons to the Active Denial System, a directed energy weapon that causes painful sensations to targeted individuals without burning the skin. He joined the Corps as an enlisted reserve Marine in 1985, and was commissioned an infantry officer in 1988 after graduating college. He could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday. An email to him prompted an automatic response directing questions to Levine.

Tafolla’s removal came one week after the commandant published a May 9 white letter to all Marines saying he would confront poor command climates across the service, saying they are frequently linked to bad behavior by rank-and-file Marines.

“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.”

Amos said in the letter that 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 sounded a warning in the letter, saying commanders 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.”

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