Sgt. Maj. John Estrada

Sgt. Maj. John Estrada (File photo)

ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. Marines need more training in peacekeeping in order to keep up with the missions they will face in the future, said the Corps’ top enlisted man.

“We’ll have to focus for the future and spend a little more time training our Marines in those areas,” Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, the 15th sergeant major of the Marine Corps, said during a recent interview.

While the quick-to-deploy 2,000-man Marine Expeditionary Units receive some peacekeeping training, even that is not nearly enough, he said.

On June 26, Estrada, 47, assumed his post as the Corps’ sergeant major with plans to focus on housing, education and safety for his Marines.

Peacekeeping missions could very well be close on the Corps’ horizon, a point of view echoed recently by Lt. Gen. James Conway, who led the Marine contingent during the Iraq war.

“You’re right in that Marines don’t normally do this type of thing, but I think we all recognize that the Army is being fairly well stretched now with all the other requirements that it has, so it would not be an inordinate request, I would not think,” Conway, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said during a Sept. 9 Pentagon briefing.

The Corps did not have a formal peacekeeping doctrine when Marines of the I MEF began rebuilding missions in southern Iraq. That should change, the two leaders separately said.

Changes could start with the Corps’ enlisted ranks that took over some officer roles during the conflict and proved they could handle added responsibilities, Estrada said.

“The young [noncommissioned officers] and junior officers are quite capable of proving they can go out there with no supervision and accomplish the mission,” Estrada said. “What I see is, we need to continue to empower them instead of micromanaging them all the time. They’re a bunch of smart kids out there, officers and enlisted. Those are the ones that actually won the war.”

“I’m trying to encourage the leadership to allow them to retain those new responsibilities … given to them as we got ready for war, and we went to war, and now they need to keep those responsibilities as they come back from war,” he said.

Staff NCOs filled traditional officer billets such as safety officers, substance abuse officer and legal officers while officers took on other leadership roles, said Estrada, who, while a lead drill instructor, earned himself the nickname “The Crusher.”

He fidgeted in his fourth-floor Pentagon office and sheepishly grinned when asked to explain.

Estrada said he had immense respect for his own drill instructors, but could have done without some of the ways of boot camp. “I got thumped on when I went through boot camp, that’s just the way it was back then, but I didn’t like it at all.”

He didn’t mimic his drill instructor, nor did he want others to.

“I used to tell my drill instructors ‘If you lay a hand on any of those recruits, I’m gonna crush you.’ But what I meant was I was going to destroy them professionally,” he said.

The name, much is his chagrin, stuck.

Estrada enlisted in the Marine Corps on Sept. 5, 1973. Until his selection to represent the Corps’ enlisted personnel, he had served with the 3rd Marine Air Wing in California.

It was during a tour at Parris Island, S.C., that he met his wife, who also was a drill instructor. Midge Estrada is recuperating from a serious May 15 car crash, and has made a “remarkable, remarkable recovery. [She] is again walking and talking,” Estrada said.

He is a runner, tennis player and working on his golf game. He wouldn’t disclose a handicap, other than to say “it’s horrible.”

During his tenure as Corps sergeant major, Estrada would like to change attendance requirements for the many Enlisted Professional Military Education courses.

“I would make it mandatory that they all have to have resident PME courses,” he said. “I find they gain more by attending the resident course and interacting with their peers than just doing the nonresident course, sitting back home in their rooms, in front of a computer and taking a course online.”

And, he said, there should be no qualms about pulling Marines from regular duties to further their schooling.

“We take officers out of their [military occupation specialties] and send them to school for long periods of time. That does not have a negative impact. It has a very positive impact in the type of leaders we have. We need to do the same for staff NCOs.

“There isn’t a Marine unit out there that should say we can’t afford to allow this Marine to go to school.”

His toughest challenge, he said, is working to keep Marines alive — especially off duty.

“I am beating that around the Marine Corps,” Estrada said. “Every time I speak, one of the last things I talk about is safety. We have to find ways of reducing off duty accidents. Why is it so challenging? We’ve been talking safety all these years and it doesn’t seem to be registering. I think it’s because the Marines are young.”

The Corps has faced a surge in off-duty casualties among Marines returning from the war zone and engaging in dangerous behavior, such as aggressive and drunken driving.

“We need to start challenging those same youngsters out there to come up with the answers on how to fix it,” Estrada said. “The commandant and I can preach all we want, but we can’t fix it. They have to fix it.”

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