ARLINGTON, Virginia — Marine Gen. Eric Smith gets up around 5:30 a.m. and starts reading intelligence reports from the secure communications setup in his house.
If he’s not traveling, the acting Marine commandant — who also is the assistant commandant — is at the Pentagon by 7:45 a.m.
Then he’s “going, all day,” he said, and much of the night, talking to civilian leaders and deputy commandants, meeting with foreign leaders, getting briefed by various units.
“Nobody should feel bad for me,” Smith told reporters Sept. 6 at the Defense News Conference in Arlington, Virginia, in response to a Marine Corps Times question about his schedule. “I make plenty of money, and nobody usually yells at me, so that’s good. But it is not a sustainable thing when the last thing you do is flip your computer off at 11:30 at night and you’re getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning.”
Smith is in the position of working multiple jobs because of one senator’s unprecedented hold on the confirmation of senior military nominees. The hold by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, has left the top jobs in the Marine Corps, the Army and the Navy filled by acting leaders, who also are all the deputy leaders of their services.
Tuberville has stood fast in his refusal to approve approximately 300 nominees in protest of a Pentagon policy that provides time off and travel expenses to service members who seek abortions out of state, a policy he views as illegal. Senate Democrats have so far balked at the time-intensive endeavor of confirming the nominees one by one.
It’s unclear how the hours that Smith is working actually compare to the hours worked by other military leaders, past and present. An emailed question to the Marine Corps about the schedule of now-retired Gen. David Berger, Smith’s predecessor, went unanswered.
But it is clear that Smith is juggling additional responsibilities.
As the acting commandant, he leads the Marine Corps, and he advises the president as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, he is still the assistant commandant, whose responsibilities, according to Smith, include safety, personnel and readiness.
“I don’t mind breaking my own back,” Smith said. “It’s just, I have to make good decisions.”
“Working on five hours of sleep over periods of time, there will be sloppiness,” said Smith, who is in his late fifties.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adults should get at least seven hours of sleep per night. In recent years, Marine leaders, including Smith, have emphasized the need for Marines to get enough sleep.
But for Smith, the choice is between missing important meetings and briefings, or forgoing sleep. Sleep loses out.
Smith is not the only general to skip out on sleep.
Even now-retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who famously said nothing kept him awake at night because he kept others awake at night, once pulled duty on Christmas Day so a young officer could spend time with family, now-retired Gen. Charles Krulak related in 2003.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus penned a 2018 “admonition” on LinkedIn about the importance of sleep, even for generals.
“Few of us can truly get by with less than 6-7 hours of sleep per night over a sustained period,” Petraeus wrote.
Retired Air Force Gen. Dave Goldfein, who served as Air Force chief from 2016–2020, told Marine Corps Times, “Every senior leader struggles with time management.”
“I don’t think there are ‘hours’ for a service chief,” Goldfein wrote in an email. “Every day is a new experience and an opportunity to do only that which you can do as a chief, delegate as much as possible to the team you have assembled, and every once in awhile ... select all delete is just good for the soul.”
Smith — who, as a uniformed military officer, is expected to stay out of politics — didn’t call out Tuberville by name Sept. 6. The three civilian department secretaries have been more direct, taking to CNN and The Washington Post to decry the senator’s hold as “dangerous.”
Maj. Joshua Larson, who works closely with Smith as his spokesman, told Marine Corps Times at the Defense News Conference that the general tries to fit in a lunchtime visit to the Pentagon gym — because that’s where he can interact with Marines.
Smith does carve out time for weekly date nights with his wife, Trish, Larson said. But the general can work as hard as he does in part because he is now an empty-nester, and he recognizes his staff can’t always log as many hours as he does, according to the spokesman.
Larson said he was supposed to meet with Smith on a recent Friday evening, but another, more pressing meeting came up for the acting commandant last-minute. Instead of rescheduling the meeting to even later, Smith said he would get himself up to speed over the weekend.
“He’s like, ‘Josh, go home,’” the spokesman said.
In Larson’s view, his boss is working such long hours because he feels a responsibility to take care of Marines.
“If it’s a choice between, ‘I can go to bed early tonight,’ or ‘I can stop and talk to this lance corporal,’ he’s going to stop and talk to the lance corporal every single time,” Larson said.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.