As Gen. Jim Amos neared the start of his final year leading the Marine Corps, his staff at the Pentagon asked a select group of senior officers for suggestions on how he and the service could improve.
One officer on Amos' staff, Maj. Warren Cook, offered blunt, pragmatic advice: The 35th commandant should embrace the millennial generation by starting official Twitter and Facebook accounts and begin connecting with rank-and-file Marines in a deliberate, intentional way. "The majority of your future engagements with Marines should be with smaller units/more personal, without PowerPoint, more Socratic, and include 30 minutes of photos and autographs following," Cook wrote in a September 2013 email recently obtained by Marine Corps Times. "In other words, the opposite of the Heritage Brief," the controversial lecture series on sexual assault that Amos delivered throughout the service in 2012.
Within a week of Cook's email, during a symposium for all Marine general officers, Amos would announce his plans for the Reawakening, a Corpswide initiative challenging noncommissioned officers to shore up discipline and garrison standards. The commandant may have been motivated by another line in Cook's email, this one referencing Jim Collins' corporate leadership book "How the Mighty Fall."
"Based on our group discussion two Fridays ago," Cook's email to Amos explains, "I believe we're in 'Stage 2,' according to Collins' stages of decline. ... Nothing that we cannot fight our way out of." That stage, according to the book, is marked by unrestrained pursuit of expansion and improvement at the expense of core values and discipline.
Amos, who will reach the end of his four years as commandant Oct. 17 with a passage of command to Gen. Joseph Dunford, is no stranger to course correction. His term has hardly been an easy one, taking command of a service that four years ago was just beginning to grapple with the implications of social media. That phenomenon has magnified the voices of those in the service's lower ranks, and irrevocably transformed how Marines receive and share information.
He oversaw much of the Marine Corps' combat mission in Afghanistan and designed a postwar strategy amidst almost universal angst about the service's future mission sets and relevancy. Carrying on the work of his predecessor, Gen. James Conway, Amos also executed a multiyear drawdown strategy that would balance force cuts with his desire to expand certain units, namely Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace.
The commandant and his advisers were frequently forced to grapple with and adapt to change beyond their control. Repeal of the don't ask, don't tell policy in 2011 and a 2013 Pentagon mandate to open all combat jobs to women, barring specific exceptions, left the Marine Corps rushing to implement social changes and, in the case of women in combat, build a transition strategy. Budget tightening made it necessary to cancel plans for the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle and return to the drawing board with the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. And when budget sequestration enacted deep, painful spending cuts, Amos revised force structure planning and squeezed dollars from installation maintenance and garrison readiness to fund operational deployments.
Sometimes, high-profile social and disciplinary issues seemed to set their own agenda. Amos' Heritage Brief, which was received with mixed approval, was borne in part out of an unequivocal mandate from Congress to eradicate sex assault in the Corps. And his efforts to address an infamous 2011 incident in which scout snipers urinated on enemy corpses became mired in controversy over accusations he'd interfered with military justice in the process — claims the Defense Department inspector general ultimately dismissed after months of investigation.
Amos declined multiple requests over several months to be interviewed for this story. But senior active-duty and retired Marines who spoke with the newspaper were unanimous on one count: that Amos is a good man and a good Marine who sought to do what was best for the service.
"General Amos has masterfully shepherded us through the most tumultuous times in our Corps' history," said Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett. "He has kept us balanced across the pillars of institutional readiness while under intense fiscal constraints, and yet service evolution, integration and innovation thrive because of his leadership."
Differences of opinion arise, however, regarding Amos' leadership style. While many called him engaged and caring, some said he had a tendency to micromanage policy issues, sometimes alienating or frustrating subordinate commanders. Others said an opaque decision-making process and several perplexing reversals left Marines unclear about his intentions and the way forward.
An F/A-18 Hornet pilot, Amos was the first aviator commandant, following an unbroken line of ground combat officers. Shortly after he assumed the post in late 2010, he released a planning document containing a robust agenda of personal goals ranging from the broad (improve unit cohesion, embrace MARSOC) to the specific (develop a Marine Corps logistics training group). While Amos would make significant progress on each of these, according to a 48-page document compiled by his office, several unforeseen challenges would compete for the commandant's attention.
Combat gear, crisis response
An early item on Amos' agenda was cancellation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle — a costly program unto which he had poured time and effort while assistant commandant of the Marine Corps under Conway. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced he was killing the program in early 2011 as part of a sweeping slate of military budget-cutting measures. Losing the EFV alone, a project beleaguered by delays and cost overruns, was slated to save $12 billion.
That decision had Amos' fingerprints on it, said a retired general officer who had worked at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, and observed the acquisition process. Like many interviewed for this story, the general spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could express his views freely.
"Having been ACMC, he knew the way this thing was headed and the troubled path it had been on," the retired general said. "I think it was clear to him he'd be pressured to pull the plug on it. ... He saw the writing on the wall."
Since then, Amos has dedicated significant time overseeing the Corps' replacement program, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle. "Before I leave 3½ years from now, we'll have a program of record, we'll have steel, it will be a vehicle and I'll be able to drive that," Amos told a congressional panel in 2011.
The ACV has had its share of challenges as well, including late-in-the game shifts from plans for a high-speed vehicle to a low-speed one, from a uniform acquisition process to a phased approach, and from tracks to wheels. In an essay published by Marine Corps Times earlier this year, two retired officers also raised concerns about the ACV's potential bulkiness and its ability to conduct sea-based assaults from distances of up to 100 miles.
But Amos is close to making good on his word. At a June think tank event in Washington, he said at least four manufacturers are producing off-the-shelf amphibious vehicles as a near-term solution for the Corps. To date, he said at the time, he had ridden in all four.
Here too, Amos has had to contend with circumstances beyond his control in managing the Marine Corps. The retired general suggested the technology for high-speed amphibious vehicles simply isn't well enough developed yet, forcing Amos to move in other directions. Loren Thompson, chief operating officer for the Lexington Institute think tank, said budget constraints had a vote in the process.
"The failure to make progress on a new amphibious tractor must be a source of great frustration" for Amos, Thompson said. "The service has needed a replacement of the [amphibious assault vehicle] for decades, and Amos made funding of that replacement a top priority. But budget caps and technology constraints derailed his plans."
Amos has seen more success in strategic application of other cutting-edge technology, notably the MV-22B Osprey and the soon-to-be operational F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, into a new set of missions that emphasize amphibious seabasing, small-unit operations and crisis response operations through dedicated special purpose task forces positioned near trouble spots across the globe. Multiple sources praised Amos' efforts to return the Marine Corps to a "911 force," keeping it relevant as the war in Afghanistan winds down.
"He understood the whole balancing act of the Corps, structurally, equipment-wise," said retired Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, former director of Marine Corps staff at Headquarters Marine Corps. "This whole aviation piece with the Osprey, this whole special MAGTF for the combatant commanders to provide that ready force, I think that's probably going to be very significant."
The strategy was also smart in that it made up for a shortage of amphibious ships, said an active-duty field-grade officer in the National Capitol region. "The concept is sound," he said. "It brings in more modern capability; it's actually a solution."
Big social changes
Soon after Amos became commandant, he had to contend with the possibility Congress would repeal the ban on gay troops serving openly. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Amos acknowledged having concerns about the potential for distraction if this happened. Expanding on his remarks in a December 2010 briefing to reporters at the Pentagon, Amos drew a firestorm of criticism when he said he feared allowing gay troops to serve openly could cost American lives in combat. "I don't want to have any Marines that I'm visiting at Bethesda with no legs be the result of any type of distraction," he said, referencing the Navy medical center in Maryland.
Once the ban was repealed in early 2011, however, Amos made clear that Marines would get behind the change, releasing a video message saying the Corps intends to "step out smartly" to conform to the new policy. And despite the heat Amos took for his remarks, numerous observers said he handled the change perfectly for the conservative-leaning service.
"He was the commandant of all Marines, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their race, color, creed," said Williams. "He drove his staff hard to really dig in and to look at all the impact, and just his focus even in dealing with those issues was going to be the impact on readiness of the Corps."
In 2013, Amos would contend again with competing concerns regarding equality and readiness when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta set deadlines for all the services to implement a strategy to open still-closed combat jobs to women, or request specific exceptions. The strategy Amos rolled out on behalf of the Marine Corps would cycle female volunteers through Marine enlisted and officer infantry training on a trial basis, and included extensive testing and experimentation to develop baseline physical standards for various combat jobs.
The task of implementing final phases of the strategy and making recommendations by the late-2015 deadline will fall to Dunford.
"I think he's handled it pretty brilliantly," said another retired general who served during Amos' tenure as commandant, but declined to be identified by name. "Had he done nothing and said nothing about this, it would have been fait accompli. We would have put women in the infantry and that hand would have been forced by a policy change. But he went to [Panetta] and said, 'there's a lot more to this than you see on the surface, particularly in the infantry.' ... He said he wasn't going to change the standards, and he hasn't."
Another source who serves at Headquarters Marine Corps as a staff noncommissioned officer also praised the strategy, saying it avoided alienating Marines with objections to women in combat arms by emphasizing scientific research and a "deliberate, measured approach" as the Corps studied integration.
Others said they struggled to understand the public presentation of the Marine Corps' strategy, elements of which, including the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force that will study the physical performance of co-ed combat units in the field, were not revealed until very recently. And the Marine Corps has, three times, delayed plans to require female Marines to complete pullups as part of their physical fitness tests, moves designed to allow more time to study women's physical capabilities and upper-body training. The downside: It made the service appear to waffle.
Then there was the case of 2nd Lt. Sage Santangelo, who wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post petitioning Amos to give female volunteers a chance to recycle through the infantry officers course, from which she had recently washed out. Amos responded publicly with a promise to re-evaluate the policies in place, and offered Santangelo the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan. According to an email exchange reviewed by Marine Corps Times, however, Santangelo had sent her essay to Amos prior to submitting it to the Post. He responded warmly to her, with a list of proposed edits designed to ensure it would be published.
"It's bizarre," said the field-grade officer, adding that he didn't know what Amos sought to accomplish in his handling of Santangelo's editorial. He wondered if Amos, who met many of the female officers to attempt infantry training, had ultimately gotten too involved in the inner workings of the integration experiment.
"I think he does care," said a retired major who served at Headquarters Marine Corps during these events. "But he almost got too close to so many things. Trust the people who are working it."
Discipline and dishonor
In 1987, Time Magazine published a now-iconic cover image of a Marine in dress blues sporting a black eye. The symbolism referred to the Moscow embassy security scandal of that year in which Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, a Marine embassy guard, was convicted of espionage.
When Amos learned of the sniper scandal, which made international news when a video of the urination incident hit YouTube in 2012, an image like that one came to mind, Williams said. "This was a black eye on the Marine Corps," he added. "He had to take a long look at that, a hard look, to be sure we were not becoming something we had historically been."
The Heritage Brief, the first of Amos' two servicewide tours promoting discipline and a return to traditional high standards, would begin a few months later. It singled out high-profile incidents of misbehavior like the sniper scandal and the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, who allegedly took his own life after being subjected to hazing in the combat zone.
But the brief would come to haunt Amos because of his rhetoric regarding the issue of sex assault. Amos claimed that 80 percent of all sexual assault accusations were based on legitimate crimes, and dismissed the idea that "buyer's remorse" could prompt allegations of sex assault. "Bulls--t," he told a roomful of staff NCOs and officers at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. "I know fact from fiction," Amos added, saying his lawyers did not want him to be so frank.
Those remarks have been cited by military defense attorneys in nearly every sex assault case tried since as evidence of unlawful command influence — or at least the appearance of it. Some dozen convictions have been appealed because of the Heritage Brief, several successfully. In one case, a military appeals court set aside an 18-year sentence for a staff sergeant convicted of rape because the judge who sentenced him failed to provide adequate relief to offset the impact of the Heritage Brief.
Legal issues aside, opinions were mixed about the brief and its effectiveness. With military sexual assault rates under the microscope in Congress, it felt to some like a response to intense political pressure on the issue.
"I think some people thought it was force-fed, and maybe it had to be," said one retired general. "But we're pretty good at listening to what the commandant had to say and getting his message out. I think he's done a good job in defending the commander's role in discipline."
The field-grade officer said he feared the Heritage Brief was viewed negatively because it felt more like a disciplinary lecture than an opportunity for young Marines to lead and excel.
"NCOs are not the problem," he said. "They're the solution."
Between the Heritage Brief and his second tour, the Reawakening, the many other efforts designed to make the Marine Corps better, sharper and more moral reveal just how high a priority these objectives were for Amos. He brought back the tradition of wearing service uniforms on Fridays, a move many suspected was designed to "out" Marines not meeting body fat and fitness standards. He implemented random body fat screenings to the same end. He rolled out an ethics stand-down for leaders in the wake of the sniper scandal and spearheaded new training on sexual assault prevention and a tougher policy on hazing.
For general officers, he held face-to-face meetings to discuss ethics, the threat of complacency, and the importance of staying above reproach in public perception. He also oversaw the implementation of 360-degree reviews for Marine commanders.
A man of faith with high standards, Amos took it personally when he saw Marines engaging in wrongdoing of any kind, sources said.
In late 2013, he launched the Reawakening to shore up standards in garrison after observing what he called a "fraying" of Marine Corps discipline. He focused on noncommissioned officers with that initiative, requiring all Marines above the rank of lance corporal to read official Marine Corps publications "Leading Marines" and "Sustaining the Transformation" and creating stringent new standards for barracks life and duty watches.
"I think it really did pain him every time a Marine did something bad," said the retired major. At the same time, the major added, "after awhile, you just get tired of being yelled at."
An image problem
From the very start of his term, Amos was forced to contend with a problem no other commandant has faced: the pervasiveness of social media and the megaphone it created for frustration and discontent in the lower ranks. And from the start, Amos was a target for younger Marines who voiced their displeasure at seeing a noninfantry officer lead the Corps.
"A lot of people were disconcerted because the Lance Corporal Underground is no longer underground," said the major. "Marines have been grumbling since 1775, but they didn't have such a loud voice. ... I think it was shocking to [Amos] and a lot of other senior leaders."
Amos, who at 64 when he became commandant, was two years older than his predecessor, Conway. He had little familiarity with the social networks that were changing how Marines communicate.
"The commandant, he's a dinosaur," said the staff NCO based at headquarters. "I don't think the Marine Corps was ready for the impact of social media."
The question of policing social media and gaining some control of the medium is one that will likely spill over into Dunford's tenure. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who challenged the Marine Corps in 2013 to crack down on Facebook pages that make sport of harassing and bullying female Marines, said in a statement that she'd continue to monitor the issue.
"I applaud the commandant's service and only wish he could have done more to change the misogynistic climate that exists for women in the Marines. This culture is especially prevalent online, where small communities of Marines use social media to sexually harass, stalk, and intimidate female Marines and perpetuate a culture of violence toward women," she said. "I look forward to working with the next commandant to put an end to these practices."
Efforts to connect with the rank-and-file proved an even greater challenge after Amos' 2011 decision to do away with the Marines' beloved tradition of rolling sleeves on desert utility uniforms in the summer.
"That's one decision that I never agreed with; that's probably the one that caused the biggest knee-jerk reaction around the Marine Corps," one of the retired generals said. "I think [Amos] never took into account how Marines felt about that."
In a stunning turnaround, Amos brought back rolled sleeves in time for the summer season earlier this year. That decision, the largest in a small series of reversals, appeared calculated to rebuild some favor and rapport with Marine NCOs, who were first to receive news of the decision per Amos' instructions. Amos also reversed himself this year in announcing that MARSOC units would be renamed for the Marine Raiders of World War II, a move he had rejected in the past, but one that many MARSOC operators favored as a way to trace the heritage of Marine special operations.
These decisions followed a year of controversy. Amos came under fire in February after Marine Corps Times was abruptly relocated away from the front of Marine Corps Exchange stores at bases worldwide. While Marine officials said the move was designed to professionalize the exchanges, emails obtained by the newspaper would reveal discussions took place between senior officials close to Amos concerning the feasibility of banning or relocating the paper from base facilities.
The topic of unlawful command influence also dominated much of 2013. A series of Defense Department Inspector General complaints filed by a Marine attorney, then-Maj. James Weirick, alleged Amos sought to have Marines in the sniper case "crushed" and thrown out of the service — and that the commandant manipulated the military justice process to do so. While a series of IG decisions found no evidence Amos committed UCI, some said the the allegations perpetuated a sense of distrust and unease at the service's upper echelons and within its legal community.
As Amos entered the final year of his commandancy, multiple sources said he knew he had an image problem; his September 2013 request to officers for mechanical ideas for improvement may have been an effort to combat negative perceptions.
In final analysis, his legacy will be complex. One of the retired generals said Amos will be remembered as caring, responsive and deeply dedicated to core values.
"I think the work he's done to keep us true to the Eagle, Globe and Anchor will be something that's a constant reminder of the time he was commandant," the general said.
Still, with loud public complaints and frustration from within the ranks magnified on social media, one officer said some of the Corps-wide reverence for the office may have been lost.
"The office of the commandant is going to be forever changed. So many Marines were so exasperated, and there was so much vocal criticism," the retired major said. "With the next commandant, I just think people will feel a little freer about that unproductive criticism."
Williams, who said Amos will be remembered as a visionary leader of integrity who positioned the Corps for a postwar future, said he may have been motivated by criticism in the junior ranks to work harder and become more involved with Marines. "Maybe," Williams said, "he just wanted to prove them wrong."