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Building on MCMAP: Proposed research focuses on hand-to-hand skills, decision-making

Dec. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Marines conduct MCMAP training at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. (Tech. Sgt. Chenzira Mallory/Air Force)

The Marine Corps wants to reshape how its troops are taught to think and act amid the stress and chaos of combat, and leaders are looking at the service's popular martial arts curriculum as the conduit through which to develop such skills, Marine Corps Ti

The Marine Corps wants to reshape how its troops are taught to think and act amid the stress and chaos of combat, and leaders are looking at the service's popular martial arts curriculum as the conduit through which to develop such skills, Marine Corps Ti

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The Marine Corps wants to reshape how its troops are taught to think and act amid the stress and chaos of combat, and leaders are looking at the service’s popular martial arts curriculum as the conduit through which to develop such skills, Marine Corps Times has learned.

Through the Office of Naval Research, officials are soliciting academic grant proposals aimed at improving the integration of “mental and physical training strategies to enhance warfighter resilience,” said Peter Vietti, a spokesman for ONR. It appears the agency is close to an agreement with the University of Kansas, which has put forth a detailed plan to study the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. Specifically, researchers with the school’s Department of Health, Sport and Exercise Science hope to determine how MCMAP can be improved so its physical and ethical components work in greater harmony.

“We’re going through an analysis of the program right now to look at how to reinvigorate it for the future and make sure that is the focus,” said Maj. Gen. Tom Murray, the commanding general of Training and Education Command in Quantico, Va. “It’s not just the physical combat piece of it, but it’s the moral, mental and character-building pieces that go with it.”

MCMAP instructors weave in ethical lessons as part of the required training at each belt level. To obtain a green belt, for example, which is required of all infantrymen, Marines must demonstrate through discussions with their instructors and fellow Marines that they understand teachings on how to manage combat stress — things like fear, fatigue and possible casualties.

When it was introduced as a key part of the martial arts program, the emphasis on ethical decision-making drew criticism from some Marines who worried it would come at the expense of the tangible lessons on hand-to-hand fighting that troops could call on when all hell breaks loose in combat. But the service’s leaders say the inclusion of values-based training will help curb bad behavior, both in the war zone and at home, by forming and constantly re-emphasizing the difference between right and wrong — between smart and stupid. They want to build on that.

“The essential philosophy of martial arts is mind, body and spirit working together as a whole,” Phillip Vardiman, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and principal investigator, said in a news release published online Dec. 9. “The Office of Naval Research wanted to see if this program does, in fact, have all of those benefits for Marines.”

Citing the sensitivity inherent to the grant approval process, officials at the school declined to be interviewed for this report. However, the news release outlines their intended approach. “Does the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program help those who take it hone their skills to make better decisions in stressful environments?” Vardiman asks. “That’s the question we hope to address.”

The test subjects

If approved for the grant, which could total more than $700,000, the researchers intend to spend three years working with Marines assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., about 250 miles east of the university. The Marine detachment there is the first stop for new Marines moving into military occupational specialties such as combat engineer, military police and motor transport.

Lt. Col. Steven Murphy, the detachment’s executive officer, said that, to begin, six volunteers will go through a MCMAP training regimen while the researchers measure how they respond. Eventually, as many as 70 Marines could participate in the study, he added.

The researchers want to assess heart rate, as well as hormones linked to stress and adrenalin. They also intend to survey the participants to get a deeper understanding of how physical activity affects their decision-making ability. As the school’s news release says, MCMAP is a rigorous activity often administered under stressful conditions — in extreme weather or when Marines are sleep-deprived, for instance.

Physical activity can stimulate learning, they note, but too much stress on one’s body and mind can compromise his immune system. Basically, these researchers hope to pinpoint a sweet spot, where physical output is in sync with one’s ability to think clearly.

“The endpoint of it is to see when the best time for them to retain training is,” Murphy said. “When, during physical training, is the best time to throw in these moral dilemmas and decision-making exercises so they get the best response out of it?”

A ripe environment

Staff Sgt. Brendan Runyon, a motor transport operations chief, is a MCMAP instructor trainer at Fort Leonard Wood. He said Marines typically do a combat exercise or warmup for about 30 minutes before moving into an hour of MCMAP instruction. At the end, they’ll bring in some of the mental and character development discussions on Marine values or warrior culture.

During discussions on subjects ingrained in them at boot camp, like leadership traits, the students are pretty attentive and have a lot to say after the workout, Runyon said. But for more advanced students working on higher belts, the talks delve into more complicated subjects like battle studies, and it can take effort to generate dialogue, he said.

Ultimately, the study may show that Marines learn better if they work on those lessons before the workout, or halfway in, Murphy said. And that could have application well beyond MCMAP, he added.

It could point to opportunities for drill instructors, who must balance physical training with values-based instruction, Murphy said. The knowledge gleaned from this research could provide a clearer picture of when a discussion on sexual-assault prevention, for instance, has the best chance resonating with recruits, he said.

“Figuring out when the best point is to learn a subject and retain it,” Murphy said, “that could be used across the military.”

Most of the Marines at Fort Leonard Wood are only a few months out of boot camp, said Col. John Glitz, the detachment’s commanding officer. Entry-level MOS schools represent one of the first opportunities for new Marines to demonstrate whether they’ve grasped the ethical and moral decision-making skills taught during boot camp and follow-on combat training at the School of Infantry. Those are very structured environments, whereas MOS school affords Marines their first taste of freedom in several months. For some, the temptation to cut loose can be difficult to resist.

“This is the sweet spot to find out how some of this stuff will work,” Glitz said.

The takeaway

Marine leaders at Fort Leonard Wood began pushing MCMAP heavily a few years ago, Murphy said. Since then, they’ve noticed some decline in the number of disciplinary problems often tied to underage drinking and boredom.

“It has worked for us really well here,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if it’s because it gives the young Marines something else to do, but I hope it really is the moral and ethical portions of the MCMAP training. I think that it definitely has a part in it.”

Glitz said MCMAP gives Marines confidence in themselves and in leadership, which are two of the main lessons he tries to instill in them. Much of that comes from the skills Marines learn from their MCMAP instructors, he said. And helping them to know when the best time to hold ethical discussions should strengthen that, he said.

Runyon, the instructor-trainer, said Marines there are motivated to learn the materials presented during the moral and character-building portion of MCMAP because they’re eager to advance and pick up their next belt. He views the research effort as a potential means to help students attain their goals.

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