Marines need to dedicate themselves to preparing their bodies and minds for war, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said in two messages to the force.

On Tuesday, Neller released a list of the Corps' 25 top tasks for 2017, along with a message outlining the areas where the service needs to improve this year.

He plans to implement the changes to the physical and combat fitness tests that were announced last year. He also called for the Marine Corps to update policies for assigning Marines military occupational specialties, and promoting and retaining them.

If Congress provides more money, the Marines also plan to buy new aircraft to accelerate the services' aviation recovery plan, Neller wrote in his task list.

Speaking to reporters on Feb. 3, Neller explained his priorities for the Corps and why he remains committed to reducing alcohol abuse and illegal behavior within the ranks.

Excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity and space.

Q: Will there be any more changes to the physical and combat fitness tests as part of the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Program?

Right now, no. The PFT and CFT changes just go into effect this year. We'll see what happens. We'll see what the result is.

My expectation is that scores will probably go down a little bit and then everybody will adjust and then they'll come back to where they were. Then they'll go higher.

The intent of the Force Fitness Instructor [course] is to get everybody to the point where the scores go up. But more importantly, the [purpose] of force fitness is not just to make our PFT scores go up, it's to reduce injuries – to PT smarter, not necessarily harder.

If we look at Marines that are not deployable, what we want to do is have less injuries based on not PTing smart. If somebody gets hurt, we want to get them rehabilitated faster.

We're trying to get Marines to look at fitness in more of a holistic way. A great, great many of them do. You go to any base, you've got the people out there using the HIT [high intensity training] lockers and all that. But it's not standardized across the force and we're trying to make it a little more standardized. 

If you really want to improve your fitness, it's more than just PTing hard: You've got to look at how you eat; you've got to look at how you live your life. You're kind of defeating the purpose if you don't sleep, if you don't eat well; if you're doing other things that don't take you to whatever your goal is for fitness.

Q: In your message "Seize the Initiative," you say: "We need to drink less, read more, and PT smarter." How do you sell that to Marines who feel they can party hard in their off time and still PT well and get the mission done?

You can do that when you're young – and maybe get away with it. I don't know. It's tough because that's part of the culture. But the logic to me is: Hey look; you're a professional; you may go to war.  Why would you want to do anything that would sub-optimize any bit of your performance?

We can change. I'm not telling people not to drink. They're grown men and women. I trust them. They can do what they want. But at the same time, I've never met anybody that said: 'Yeah, drinking a lot really is making me more fit.'

Instructors show the proper way to lift an ammo can.

Photo Credit: Sgt. Melissa Marnell, USMC Combat Camera.

Q: You also write that alcohol 'continues to be the most damaging behavior' that hurts readiness
 and contributes to sexual assault and other destructive acts. What steps will the service take to address that?

If you believe that alcohol fuels a lot of this unacceptable, illegal, unauthorized behavior that causes people to not make good decisions, that's kind of why I'm focusing on alcohol.

Alcohol – if it's not respected and managed – it takes Marines into a bad place, whether it's domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide, hazing, DUI, or just general jackassery. Normally the story starts …'Well, we were drinking tequila, you know," and the story kind of goes downhill from there.

That was kind of the intent. Since I've been in this office, I've said, 'Look, I'm just going to tell you what I think and we're going to talk about it.' It's not a secret. One sexual assault is too many. One suicide is too many. One Marine involved in a drunk driving event is too many. 

One Marine falling off the second floor of a barracks because they were goofing around on the ledge because they were drinking in the barracks is too many. Somebody just falling down the stairs or hurting their leg doing something – maybe they've got to be medically discharged – is too many.

If, by talking about this, I get 10 percent of people to kind of think about what they're doing, then we're making progress.

Q: Why is the Marine Corps updating how it promotes and retains Marines?

Sixty percent of the Marine Corps is under the age of 25. People want to re-enlist. We want to make sure that we're re-enlisting the right ones. We want to make sure that if people want to make a lat move that we're going to put them in a field where they have the best opportunities to be successful.

I don't know what I don't know and I think there's been a lot of development in cognitive testing of people out there in the civilian world. I want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to make the force as capable as we can make it and put Marines in a position where they can contribute best and be successful.

Q: Does the Marine Corps have any plans to offer new retention bonuses to Marines?

We're always monitoring what MOSs are short. We provide a lot of great training opportunity for Marines. Just say for the sake of discussion that somebody was involved in cyber-type activities. It's very difficult for us to compete with the civilian side on some of those.

We're always looking at what our retention is and what MOSs we have a hard time retaining. Those are the ones that generally are probably going to get the bonus.

Staff Sgt. Carlos Jones, senior drill instructor, Platoon 3102, Company I., 3rd Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, instructs a recruit during a company Incentive Training session at the Recruit Training Facility sand pit on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.

Photo Credit: Pfc. Sarah Stegall, USMC

Q: How does the Marine Corps hope to improve how recruits are assigned MOSs at boot camp?

A lot of young men and women come into the Marine Corps and their recruiters sign them up for a certain thing. Then there's a testing regiment that goes on. I just want to make sure that that's doing what we want it to do: take the skill sets of people and put them in both what they want to do and what they're going to be most successful at. 

Somebody who maybe has a foreign language skill and they end up doing something else – they become a food services Marine or something. Maybe that's what they wanted to do. We're always trying to make sure that we take the best advantage of the talent that comes in with Marines. 

We may be in a good place right now. I just want to make sure that the system we've got – that we're doing the right cognitive testing to make sure that we're putting Marines in the best position where they can be successful and contribute to the mission.

Q: When do you expect Marine Corps Force 2025 to be released?

We're still iterating the final version of the thing and I've got to brief it to the secretary of the Navy and the secretary of defense. 

If the force grows – even though it's in the National Defense Authorization Act to increase the size of the Marine Corps, there hasn't been the money appropriated to do that. We've got a plan either way.

We're kind of waiting to see what resources are available, which will tell us which version we're going to go to. So we're hopeful that the Congress is going to appropriate the money to take us to 185,000, as it says in the NDAA. That will get us started.

We're going to take it step by step.

But there's a lot of writing out there from a lot of people about the size of the Marine Corps and all that, so we're prepared to adjust.

Q: If Congress gave the Marine Corps more money, how could the service accelerate its aviation recovery plan?

I think the first thing we would do if we've already got aircraft that have got a production line – which we do for every airplane except the CH-53K – we would try to buy new airplanes faster.

We'd also want to make sure that we are fully funding the flight hour program, so we're flying. We need to fly more. Part of flying more is fully funding it at a higher level.

If you can buy new airplanes faster; if you can fly the airplanes you've got with better parts support and people are getting to fly and maintainers are able to better maintain the airplanes, then the readiness goes up.

This is all about the readiness profile. So we're going to be in a position where we're fielding new aircraft and sustaining legacy aircraft for a number of years. It would be nice if the op tempo would go down, but I don't see that happening either. We've got to do this all on the fly.  We've got to improve our readiness and continue to meet our requirements.

Q: How would that help the supply shortage for older aircraft, such as Hornets and Harriers?

Those three things have to come together. We've got to fly the airplanes we've got, so to buy new airplanes by itself is not going to fix the problem. You've got to fund the parts and the spares. That's not just for aviation, that's for all ground equipment. I could say the same thing for Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.

Q: But finding spare parts for older aircraft is extremely difficult.

That's why the priority is to get new airplanes. Rather than fixing old stuff, we'd rather get new stuff and then have the proper parts support for that.

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