Retired Marine Corps Col. Morgan Mann had spent most of his time in uniform guiding operations, either preparing Marines for combat or leading them in the fight.

In August 2017 he was called an “eminently qualified Marine,” ranked in his fitness report by his major general boss to be at the very top, already ready to serve as a brigadier general.

But an unblemished career would end with the stroke of a pen, despite an investigator finding him not at fault for, or even aware of, an incident that triggered a personnel investigation.

A few weeks after his fitness report, Mann, his regimental sergeant major and personnel officer would all be fired, their decades-long careers effectively ended.

And it would take more than three years, not until February 2021, for Mann’s record to be cleared, long after he and all parties involved had since retired from the Corps.

A morale problem

Following multiple combat deployments after 9/11, by early 2017 Mann had been asked to take over 25th Marine Regiment ― one of only two infantry regiments in the Marine Corps Reserve.

The colonel had accepted the job, overseeing more than 4,500 Marines spread across 23 sites in 11 states and overseas, knowing it would be a different kind of assignment.

When he took over in March 2017, there was a morale problem, he said, specifically in the headquarters company, which was understaffed and overworked.

It wasn’t until May 2017 that he learned about two equal opportunity complaints from a Marine sergeant in the headquarters company administrative section, which predated his tenure.

The first of those EO complaints, in August 2016, coincided with a command climate in which Marines claimed there was hostile work environment and that the section, “unhealthy and rife with conflict.”

Though the Marine sergeant’s supervisors listed in those previous complaints had since left the unit, he nevertheless counseled leadership within the section and said he was clear with his expectations.

“We were rock solid that this was not going to be tolerated in the headquarters and I gave the same message all across the regiment,” Mann told Marine Corps Times in an exclusive interview in March.

Mann continued onward, bouncing around the many, spread-out locations to meet with and guide his Marines across the bustling training and deployment summer that reservists see.

His work was being noticed.

The colonel’s fitness report covering April 2017 to July 2017 signed by his supervisor, Maj. Gen. Burke W. Whitman, featured glowing recommendations.

Whitman had spent the better part of a decade working with Mann and knew his leadership style and work ethic well.

“Col. Mann is one of the top (colonels) in the (Marine Forces Reserve) and is one of our finest officers,” Whitman had written. “He has my most enthusiastic recommendation for promotion to (Brigadier General).”

But for Mann, his regimental sergeant major and personnel officer all that was about to change.

By late summer, the same Marine sergeant in headquarters company who had made two previously resolved EO complaints before Mann took over, was serving on limited-service status at a civilian doctor’s direction.

The Marine had suffered a health-sensitive medical incident that put the Marine on limited status.

Air conditioning wasn’t working at the time at the Fort Devens, Massachusetts, site of the admin section’s office. The command allowed the Marine sergeant to wear physical training gear instead of the uniform of the day uniform to work. And later took other measures to accommodate the medical condition.

On July 26, 2017, regimental Sgt. Maj. James Boutin told the Marine sergeant that the Marine needed to be wearing the uniform of the day while on duty. The Marine was in physical training gear instead. At the time of the brief interaction, Boutin did not know that the Marine was under medical orders.

Then, after having difficulties tracking down the Marine during duty hours, headquarters staff visited the Marine’s residence on Aug 1, 2017.

The sergeant’s officer-in-charge, “decided independently to override a medical chit and recall the sergeant to duty, exceeding his authority, and misrepresenting his decision as the commanding officer (Mann’s) decision,” according to a subsequent investigation. The officer sent enlisted Marines to the sergeant’s residence to instruct the sergeant to return to work.

Mann, though unaware of the incident at the time, told Marine Corps Times that while the incident was handled poorly, the Marine was never denied medical care and all medical chits were honored.

The next day, Aug. 2, 2017, the Marine sergeant reported for duty, was counseled and then made a “for your eyes only” request mast to Whitman, commanding general of 4th Marine Division.

The Aug. 4, 2017, request mast launched a command investigation, ordered by Whitman. Due to the nature of the request, Mann was not aware at this point of either the incident that had triggered the request nor the request itself.

The subsequent investigation placed blame on the actions of the sergeant’s immediate supervisors and “did not recommend any adverse action be taken” against Mann, according to both the original 2017 investigation and a recent ruling by the Department of Navy Board for Correction of Naval Records.

Both Mann and retired Boutin recently told Marine Corps Times that they had been briefed by Whitman what he recommended to his boss, Lt. Gen. Rex C. McMillian, commanding general, Marine Forces Reserves. Regimental Headquarters Personnel Officer CWO 3 Robert Hoy also was relieved as a result.

Mann and Boutin said that Whitman didn’t hold them at fault for the incident would follow the recommendations of the investigating officer, which included counseling of the Marines directly involved and further education and training on EO and medical issues for members of the staff.

But on Oct. 4, 2017, Whitman returned from his talk with McMillian and told the three Marines they were fired.

“I was asked to clear my office space, put on my civilian gear and that was it,” Mann said. “I never put on a uniform again except for my retirement in 2019.”

‘Unsatisfactory’ for promotion

Mann disputed his subsequent adverse fitness report, which dropped him from the very top of the promotion pile to the lowest possible category of “unsatisfactory” for promotion.

The colonel filed multiple rebuttals to the three-star’s decision, all were rebuffed.

Multiple attempts by Marine Corps Times to reach McMillian were unsuccessful.

Mann countered McMillian’s reasoning directly in his rebuttals.

“Fundamental fairness suggests that a board selected regimental commander be relieved for actual facts that create a clear understanding of the senior commander’s loss of confidence ― I do not feel that has occurred in this instance,” Mann wrote.

The relief was based on the command investigation out of the request mast, McMillian wrote in his fitness report remarks to Mann.

Yet the investigating officer “never directed that (Mann) be a subject of the investigation or that my performance regarding the incident at hand be specifically investigated,” Mann wrote in his rebuttal to McMillan’s fitrep remarks.

Because of the nature of the request mast, Mann didn’t know what had happened involving the sergeant until he was being fired. He essentially reconstructed the event after the fact as he was fighting for his career.

“The Investigating Officer’s exhaustive investigation does not contain a single finding, opinion or recommendation specific to my performance, actions, conducts or decisions as the Commanding Officer; nor does it suggest dereliction or neglect on my part,” Mann wrote.

McMillian stated that the investigation itself was enough reason to consider Mann’s conduct as commander.

In his response to Mann’s rebuttal, McMillian rejected Mann’s reasoning and reiterates that, “the Commander is responsible and accountable for all things the command does and fails to do.”

Rebuttal

The fired sergeant major, Boutin, filed a 22-page rebuttal to the report but told Marine Corps Times in March that it had gone nowhere.

“It devastated me,” Boutin said. “It devastated my family. I have dedicated my entire life to the Marine Corps.”

During nearly 30 years, Boutin had served his entire time as an infantryman, seeing five combat tours, and never having had any bad paperwork, he says.

“This comes up and the only thing I got out of this was, ‘you need to retire,’” he said.

“What should have happened, it shouldn’t have went to the three-star level,” Boutin said. “It should have went to the two-star, pull us up and let us speak, give our thoughts, ask what’s going on? What’s perceived to be happening and the way forward with corrective actions.”

“That never happened,” Boutin said. “The three-star didn’t even pull us in to talk to us.”

The sergeant major stands by his interaction with the Marine sergeant. The sergeant was not in the assigned uniform of the day and he corrected the situation by telling the sergeant to wear the appropriate uniform, though Boutin was unaware of the Marine sergeant’s medical condition or limited work status at the time.

He was not involved directly in the subsequent house visit. But he was fired, along with the personnel officer and Mann because he was part of leadership, he said.

Boutin had envisioned completing a full 30-year career before saying goodbye to the Corps.

“I didn’t even get a handshake on the way out the door,” Boutin said.

Hoy told Marine Corps Times that he had arrived at 25th Marine Regiment in fall 2016. He served as the regimental personnel officer. He said that the order to send Marines to check on the sergeant came from Lt. Col. Jason Lang, who was serving as both regimental operations and regimental inspector instructor officer.

Lang denied giving the order in statements to the investigating officer. He filed for retirement in the midst of the fallout from the handling of the Marine sergeant’s request mast.

“Me and Lang had conflicting statements,” Hoy said. “I said he did it. He said he didn’t remember.”

Hoy is still waiting on the response of the Board of Correction of Naval Records to his appeal to also clear his record of any wrongdoing.

An added burden for Boutin was his inability to tell his side of things. When the firings were made public, he said he was advised that anything he said to the media could be held against him. After he retired in 2018, he said he reached out to media but didn’t get anywhere.

But Mann continued his appeal, by June 2019 he had received a letter from the office of Commandant Gen. Robert Neller stating that the performance evaluation review board had decided McMillian had erred and the 2017 adverse fitness report, the last review of his performance as a Marine Corps officer, would be removed from his official file.

There was more work to do. Another document, the letter by McMillian outlining his loss of confidence in Mann and why he was firing him remained in Mann’s official file.

In September 2019, a then retired Whitman wrote a detailed letter of support to the Board of Corrections for Naval Records to remove adverse material from his Official Military Personnel File.

Noting his long service history with Mann, Whitman called the colonel an “exemplary officer and commander, an ethical, thoughtful and highly effective leader who inspired the people in his charge and genuinely cared for their welfare while accomplishing the mission.”

Whitman reiterates in his letter the findings of the original investigation ― that Mann had no knowledge of the incident and his leadership had not contributed to the incident nor overall command climate problems that predated his tenure, and that the colonel had and was taking steps to address past problems in the unit.

Whitman briefly references McMillian’s decision in the letter, noting that the three-star had the “ultimate decision” that resulted in the colonel’s firing.

“That decision was and is absolutely (McMillian’s) prerogative as a higher headquarters commander,” Whitman wrote. “But it went beyond what the (investigation) had recommended and what I had endorsed.”

On Feb. 22 the Board of Correction of Naval Records issued its decision, that all adverse paperwork related to Mann’s relief be removed from his official record.

“The Board noted that Petitioner’s relief was due to a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to command and lead Marines, but that the (Command Investigation) contained no information that Petitioner knew about the inappropriate actions of his subordinates that led to the sergeant’s Request Mast, or that he contributed to a climate that would have accepted that conduct,” the board wrote.

“In fact, the (Command Investigation) reveals that (Mann) took actions to correct the problems with the climate in the command and when he learned of his subordinate’s actions, he reversed their poor decisions,” the board wrote.

The board specifically addressed McMillian’s reasoning that commanders are responsible for all that their unit does and fails to do, noting, “that there are limits to what is reasonable.”

The board found that Mann was held to an “unreasonable level of accountability.”

Correction: The article has been corrected to show that it was the Marine sergeant’s Officer-in-Charge who decided independently to override the sergeant’s medical chit. It has also been updated to include comments from retired CWO 3 Robert Hoy, who spoke with Marine Corps Times after the article’s initial publication.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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