Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger acknowledged that the Corps has had issues identifying toxic leaders, which could be a major problem for his plan to retain more Marines.
On Wednesday Berger released a 20-page document outlining how the Corps will better oust toxic leaders and change its culture to generally start treating Marines better.
“We have to treat people like human beings instead of inventory,” Berger told reporters on Tuesday.
The changes come as the Marine Corps looks to get older and more experienced as it prepares for a potential war with China. The increased complexity from the battlefield will see the Corps move away from a policy that intentionally pushed out 75 percent of first-term enlistees in favor of a younger, less experienced Corps.
At the end of the day, good leadership can be a big reason why talented Marines stay in the Corps or get out. But unfortunately toxic leadership is nothing new.
For example, in 2017 the Marine Corps fired Col. Daniel P. O’Hora, the commander of the Marine Corps Engineer School, after finding his leadership went beyond toxic and was actually dangerous.
“I have never seen or heard of a Marine Corps command so broken and climate so hostile, the mental health of the members is at a dangerous level and if unchanged could result in heightened incidents to loss of life,” says an undated memo from the Equal Opportunity Office to the commander of Training Command included in an investigation into O’Hora.
“Immediate intervention is needed to heal the command and return it to its once glory.”
The Marine Corps’ old ways of identifying toxic leaders have still let some slip through, but the commandant hopes new reviews and a focus on diversity will create a healthier climate where Marines will thrive and want to stay.
One of the most direct proposals to oust toxic leaders will be so-called “360-degree feedback” for Marines receiving fitness reports, commonly known as FITREPs.
“Fitness reports, however, provide critically important but limited insights into a Marine’s strengths and weaknesses,” Berger wrote in the document. “At present, the FITREP captures only the positive views of two supervisors who, in some cases, are not co-located with the Marine reported on or only had limited observation of them.”
Some Marines can present a particularly rosy picture to senior Marines that completely ignores the reality of the command or the treatment of people within it.
That rosy picture, mixed with the right schools, physical fitness scores and readiness numbers, can propel a Marine’s career until poor leadership becomes too public to ignore, it raises to the level of a crime or Marines die.
For example, an investigation into the summer 2020 sinking of an amphibious assault vehicle that resulted in the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor found that Lt. Col. Keith Brenize, commander of the 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, had failed to properly report maintenance issues and training lapses that had put Marines at unnecessary risk.
Brenize “did not convey the significant risks in his command related to the AA platoon, specifically its declining materiel readiness and lack of predeployment (waterborne) training opportunities and MCCRE or other formal evaluation,” Lt. Gen. Carl E. Mundy III said in the investigation.
The Marines in charge of fixing the vehicles in time for the deployment had complained about the maintenance level and their lack of higher support, the investigation found. For reasons still unknown, they were not allowed swap out working vehicles for the ones in disrepair and the only aid they received were three extra mechanics that helped them work around the clock.
Brenize left the battalion June 19, 2020, just 11 days before the fatal accident.
As of Oct. 6 he was still under Training and Education Command and the administrative actions against him were still ongoing. Marine Corps Times reached out to the Marine Corps on Tuesday for any updates.
Some Marines leaders have had their careers end when poor or dangerous leadership was discovered.
But in the years before a battalion commander or sergeant major was fired for toxic leadership, they may have forced out an unknown number of talented Marines.
The Corps needs those Marines as it prepares to fight a complex future war, which will put more responsibility into the hands of comparatively junior Marines than ever before.
“We’re going to have to ask of Marines more going forward if they are going to win,” Berger said.
The proposed review would add feedback from a Marine’s seniors, peers and juniors and would allow “unflattering feedback that is prohibited from inclusion in a Marine’s FITREP,” the report said.
The review is a “proven means for identifying traits of toxic leadership and can help reduce the incidence of toxic leaders advancing to senior levels within the service,” Berger said in the report.
In 2022 the 360-review will be implemented on a trial basis, with feedback being made available to the reviewed Marine and their reporting senior.
No later than 2024 the reviews will be incorporated into the selection board and assignment process, “to ensure that this important input is properly considered by those selecting and assigning our future leaders,” Berger said in the report.
Beyond toxic leaders and reinforcing the idea that Marines are people, the Corps wants to reinforce its prioritization of diversity and take a slightly stronger stance on sexual assault and harassment.
“The Marine Corps draws its collective strength and identity from all its Marines, so it is critical that we prioritize policies that maximize the individual strengths of every Marine, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, creed, or any other marker,” Berger wrote in the document. “We will commit to prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of talent management ― not to satisfy abstract notions of political correctness, but as a very real means to recruit, develop, and retain Marines of varied talents.”
The document argued that diversity was important, pointing to research that showed diverse teams solve problems faster and more creatively ― key skills at all levels of the Marine Corps.
Increased acceptance may encourage diverse Marines to stay in longer, matching with Berger’s plan to increase retention.
It will also open up new pools of potential recruits as the Corps makes itself a more attractive option to all segments of U.S. society.
The Marine Corps has started to take steps to improve its diversity, launching a commercial campaign featuring women in the Corps and doing away with promotion photos in the hope of fighting against unconscious bias in the selection process.
It seems those investments have started to show results, with women making up 13 percent of the Marines Corps’ recruiting class, Berger said.
“We’ve never been close to that,” Berger said.
As of May, the Marine Corps active duty force was 8.96 percent women.
The manpower document has plans to ensure substantiated allegations of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination will follow a Marine’s career and prevent them from holding command positions.
“Convictions for sexual related offenses, and convictions or substantiated allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination will be prominently noted in a Marine’s record and impact the assignments process,” the document said. “Effective immediately, monitors will be required to communicate directly with a gaining unit’s commanding officer when they assign a Marine with a conviction or substantiated allegation.”
“Further, Marines with a substantiated allegation of harassment or discrimination are disqualified from command selection or assignment as a unit’s sergeant major or senior enlisted advisor,” it added.
But hurdles remain.
Sexual assault and harassment remain a problem across the military, even as the Department of Defense looks to new policies and plans to try to combat it.
The Corps still has no plans to allow ponytails or braids, making it the lone branch of the military to ban the hairstyle, which has been a big ask from women in the ranks.
The Corps also has denied a Sikh Marine from wearing his articles of faith, like a turban, uncut hair and a beard, in any forward-facing ceremonial units, claiming that it would hurt the Marine Corps’ recruiting efforts.