Don’t mix genders until after basic training
On the quiet Sunday evening of April 8, 1956, at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C., Staff Sgt. Matthew McKeon ordered his recruit platoon into the tidal marsh as punishment. Six recruits drowned. The public outcry almost did in the Marine Corps — and it resulted in dramatic changes to the leadership and conduct of Marine recruit training.
Twenty years later, on March 13, 1976, Pvt. Lynn McClure died in the Veterans Hospital in Houston of injuries he suffered while being beaten in a pugil stick bout at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego the previous December — at the direction of Staff Sgt. Harold Bronson. That incident also resulted in dramatic changes to recruit training and increases in officer supervision and education.
The latest tragedy at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, is partially the result of similar leadership lapses. And there are parallel lessons to be learned that are applicable to all of our armed services. The Marines learned it the hard way — as is the Air Force right now.
Some might think that being a drill instructor in basic training these days ought to be easy. After all, every person entering is a qualified volunteer, and today’s standards are as high as they have ever been. But having these young men and women — who will do almost anything to succeed and please — underneath your command can be an aphrodisiac that clearly some can’t resist.
Part of the answer is leadership — from every echelon, but particularly from the junior officers. Drill instructors are professionals and trained to do a job, but they have to be led and supervised — especially after hours and during “free time,” when that supervision can be lax.
The excesses that occurred at Lackland are inexcusable, and somewhere there wasn’t an officer watching what was going on — just like what happened to the Marines in 1956 and in 1976. Officers have to be present, and supervising.
But the Marines learned another lesson along the way: Placing female recruits in the barracks with male drill instructors is a bad idea, even if there are separate rooms and bath facilities. Mixing the genders in basic training is problematic. We know that we have a gender-integrated military, but segregating the genders in basic eliminates a huge distraction and would have helped to solve Lackland’s problem.
The time to integrate the genders is following basic training, when your new servicemember is no longer the naive recruit that he or she was coming in and when he or she has been given adequate education, training and independence to avoid such circumstances as what happened at Lackland. Integration would start during specialty training, when servicemembers receive education in their basic military occupational specialty. But caution has to be applied there as well, and the lessons of leadership still apply. These young men and women are still very vulnerable and need to be led and protected.
You can see from the examples above that the supervision at recruit training in the Marines between 1956 and 1976 diminished and almost resulted in the demise of the Corps. An old saying in the Marines is that “camouflage is continuous.” So is leadership — you can never let your guard down when it comes to the basic training of our young men and women. The moment you compromise on the level and intensity of supervision, you are inviting disaster.
It is often said that our most valued commodity is the individual soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine. If that is the case, then we need to provide the leadership — and environment — to train each one responsibly.
Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney was the Marine Corps’ inspector general from 1997 to 1999. He’s also a former commanding general at Parris Island, S.C.