October 16, 2002
Guest Column: 'Youth Movement' Hurts Marines
By Gregory S. Clemons
Over the last few years, I have noticed a growing trend in the Marine Corps where more senior - and let's face it, older - staff sergeants are being passed by for promotion to gunnery sergeant in favor of younger Marines of that same rank.
As one whose own promising Marine Corps career has suddenly faltered as a result of this arbitrary policy change, I am sure many will conclude that I am writing this solely out of personal frustration. That is not the case: I believe the "youth movement" promotion policy will seriously weaken and undermine the Marine Corps' traditional emphasis of strong leadership within the enlisted ranks, with deadly consequences to come.
For now, for reasons that make no military or organization sense, the Marines are favoring youth over experience, promoting sergeants (E-5) to staff sergeant (E-6) after only seven or eight years of active service. In the past, you had to have served six years as a sergeant with 11 years of active duty before being considered for the next rank.
For years, a Marine had to be a staff sergeant (E-6) for at least four years with a minimum 14 total years on active duty before receiving any consideration for promotion to gunnery sergeant (E-7).
That has changed as well.
In the past I questioned the Army's decision to use staff sergeants (E-6) as squad leaders in contrast with the Marine Corps policy of assigning sergeants (E-5) to lead squads and staff sergeants (E-6) to serve as platoon sergeants. As I grow older in the Corps, I realize that maybe the Army leadership is on to something. I think we now need to follow the Army's example and change our structure so that a staff sergeant is a squad leader and gunnery sergeants are assigned as platoon sergeants.
But I doubt that this step will be sufficient to prevent erosion of SNCO leadership. Many of the young staff sergeants lack crucial leadership skills. They lack the maturity to mentor Marines, the experience to read the battlefield, and the wisdom to make the correct decision in a timely manner.
According to MARADMIN 467/01 (Marine administrative letter), the Corps now wants a Marine to be promoted to the rank of gunnery sergeant by the time he or she reaches 12 years of service. (In contrast, the first time I was considered for promotion to that rank was at my 15-year mark, so I never had a chance to make that "younger" target.
Additionally, MARADMIN 467/01 states that if a field is promoting slower than the target time in service (12 years for gunnery sergeant) the number of Marines placed in the promotion zone will increase in order to speed the rate at which a Marine is considered for promotion. Unfortunately, this also means more Marines will fail selection to the next grade. Last year 270 failed selection and this year more than 400 were passed over.
A staggering 66 percent of the infantry platoon sergeants were passed over for promotion this year, but when questioned, Marine Corps personnel officials dismiss the concern by noting in a letter to my congressman, "It is inevitable that many highly qualified Marines are not selected even though they are deserving."
I have been promoted only two times in 16 years despite an outstanding record. Today, I am a staff sergeant with over six years time in grade knowing that my chance for promotion under the revised USMC policy looks dimmer and dimmer. When discussing my situation with friends, I usually joke that it was my two combat tours in Liberia and Kuwait, or maybe my other three deployments overseas that slowed down my career. Or maybe it was my two tours in the presidential guard and one with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that did me in.
But it is a joke without any humor: If you were to calculate the lost wages for the last five years of my career (as a staff sergeant vs. gunnery sergeant), and add that to the lost retirement of $186 a month for the next 33 years or until I reach my notional life expectancy limit of 72 (not factoring in any cost-of-living increase), I ultimately will have lost more than $95,000 in pay and retirement for the lost promotion.
Marine Corps career counselors, whose job is guiding Marines and trying to make our promotion package more appealing to the promotion board, are forced to use ambiguous and bureaucratic phrases - such as "due to keen competition," or "lack of credibility in military occupational skill" - when discussing possible reasons why we fail selection. Of course, none are so candid as to say, "You were passed over because we now believe you are too old."
I wonder what "keen completion" means when hearing the story of one staff sergeant who came over to the Marine infantry branch after 13 years in the military police, and having never served with the grunts and deploying only once aboard ship. He attended platoon sergeant's school and went to the fleet where he was selected to gunnery sergeant just five months later with virtually no experience in his new occupation.
When I asked a sergeant major from manpower about the policy in general, he replied, "We do not even provide 100 percent opportunity to be looked at for selection, it's that way by design." So I can only assume that my package and perhaps hundreds of others were never considered by the promotion board when this less-qualified Marine and others like him received their promotions.
It is unfortunate that the Marine Corps that we love and have served so faithfully has treated us this way, abandoning us in favor of a demographic trend. But that is only my personal lament.
Of more significance, I am convinced that as the Marine Corps continues to lower the age and experience of its staff sergeants, it will increase the number of Marines we put into body bags the next time we go to war.
Clemons is a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps with 18 years of active-duty service. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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