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Pendleton Marines Caught In The Middle of War, Politics

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Aired 12/6/10

As federal budget problems persist, the Defense Department plans to make the armed forces "meaner and leaner." We look at what this means to the Marine Corps; what it's like covering -- and being embedded with -- the Marines; the new commandant; and the prospect of ending don't Ask, Don't Tell..

As federal budget problems persist, the Defense Department plans to make the armed forces "meaner and leaner." We look at what this means to the Marine Corps; what it's like covering -- and being embedded with -- the Marines; the new commandant; and the prospect of ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell..

Guests: Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times

Gretel Kovach, reporter, SDUT

Mark Walker, reporter, North County Times,

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The new commandant of the U.S. marine corps got headlines late last week by urging the senate to delay repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that bars gays from serving opening in the military. Marine corps general, James Amos, says he's respecting the opinions of a majority of marines serving in combat who say they don't want the change right now. But general Amos is expecting other changes from marines of he's announced intentions to transform the corps into a more flexible force, equally ready to respond to combat, diplomatic or humanitarian missions. It's a big change in the theory of the Marine corps but not from the reality of the mission that marines have been carrying out in Afghanistan. We're talking about the misisons of the corps and the changes ahead with my guests, three journalists who cover the military in San Diego, Tony Perry is San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles times. Good morning Tony.

PERRY: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gretel Kovach is a reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune. Gretel, good morning.

KOVACH: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Mark Walker is a reporter with the North County Times, and thanks for coming in, mark.

WALKER: You bet.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think of the changing mission of the corps? Is it a necessity considering the nature of today's threats against America? Or is it a bad idea? Give us a cull with your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727. Now, you've covered and been embedded with the Marines several times now, Tony, especially you, in Afghanistan and Iraq. What can you tell us about their mission? Are they warriors and nation builders?

PERRY: They do windows. They do whatever is asked of them and very quickly. And one reason they do windows is institutionally, there is a kind of insecurity in their culture that says, hey, if we don't do everything asked of us and very quickly and very well, some bright boy is gonna say, why don't we fold them into that large thing called the United States army, and there have been congressional fights over this in the thirties, the '40s, the '50s, the 60s, and we may be headed fair kind of fight like that. Now, no one is going to suggest folding the marine corps into the army, but they may suggest downsizing significantly the ranks of the Marine Corps, and also pulling back who it is they're asked to do. So while the fight is going on in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent, Iraq, the new fight may be in the Congress in the coming years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You wrote on what the commandant said is his idea to expand the corps and make it a little more flexible. Tell us a lot bit about that vision and what you've actually seen on the ground, the things that marines actually have to do when they're in combat. [CHECK AUDIO].

KOVACH: Well, the new commandant settled on this term, and his team, they settled on this term, they would like to be a middle weight force. They shied away from general purpose because they thought that term sounded like a sack of flour, but they would bible to respond to a wide range of missions, everything from humanitarian assistance in Haiti to training foreign forces and armies, to ground combat missions like they're doing in Afghanistan. But even in Afghanistan on the ground, they -- there's an incredible range of missions and duties that they're doing as a few commanders put it to me, they have to be warriors and states men, and the town mayor, and everything all wrapped up into one package. So they're doing a combination of the traditional, very kinetic combat missions, but also the winning hearts and minds types of counter insurgency operations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, mark as Gretel points out, had has actually been going on for a while, the Marines responding to humanitarian crieseses and having multiple roles while in combat. I'm wondering, though, is there an essential contradiction in why young men join the Marines as opposed to what they actually end up doing if they're going to be diplomats and humanitarians on the ground?

WALKER: I don't think there is necessarily a conflict in that. Part of what the marines do is they go on expeditionary cruises. And generally those marine expeditionary units will found themselves somewhere through a natural disaster. That happened recently in Pakistan with the earthquake and in Haiti, marines are accustomed to going ashore and helping out in events of natural disaster.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it really though -- that is not why a lot of guys and some women sign up to be marines though, right? Tony?

PERRY: True, I don't think a lot of them sign up to be maintenance specialists or computer operators or payroll clerks, etc, although all of those are worthy tasks and have to be done. No, they sign up to be part of the charisma, to fight, they believe, and they end up doing some other things, supporting those who fight. Marine Corps does very well in spreading its culture such that even if you are a heavy equipment operator or a payroll clerk or something else, you're not quite a rifle man, you are a rifle man. And the culture is a very tight, reinforced culture, even after ten years of war, I think one of the extraordinary things about the Marine Corps is this their culture has not been fractured as potentially, I think, some of the other military services have been in these last ten years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're speaking about the changing mission of the U.S. Marine Corps, my guests are Tony Perry and Gretel Kovach, and Mark Walker, and we're talking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Gretel, you were also -- wrote with the fact that the commandant is talking about expanding education for marines so that they can handle more skills. What is he talking about and what kind of skills are needed?

KOVACH: Well, one thing they're finding on the ground in Helmand province is that they want to have maximum contact with the local population. So there's many small patrol bases. So that means that very small units of marines are operating without as much super vision as you would expect. So they really want to increase the training for these small unit leaders so they can make the right decisions on their own. Because sometimes those disguises can have huge ramifications in terms of international politics.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, but for instance, not only do they have to learn those skills but they've actually literally have to build this'll own nation in in the desert. In Afghanistan. Tell us about camp leather neck.

KOVACH: Well, camp leather neck is really a small city, it has its own fire department, you know, everything you would expect of a small city. And it's expanding very rapidly. The Marine footprint has did you believe doubled in the last year or so in Helmand province so they need to accommodate all these extra forces.

THE COURT: And what about the conditions of [CHECK AUDIO] what's it like in the summer and winter.

KOVACH: I just got an e-mail from one of the sergeant majors over there who's serving at camp leather neck, sergeant major O'Connell, and he said they have had a 95-degree drop in temperature. So it's extremely cold there right now. When Tony and I were there this summer, it was 120, 130-degree, and now it's down in the thirties. So very extreme, very austere conditions.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm amazed at -- you wanted to respond, Tony, I'm sorry.

PERRY: Oh, expand a little bit on Gretelo point on the small unit leaders, what we're talking about is corporals, 20, 21 years old, 22 years old check [CHECK AUDIO] check.

PERRY: La Jolla in the summer, but it's relatively civilized, you get outside of leather neck, where most of the Marines are, it's dirt, it's dust, and there are no showers and there probably isn't running water, and the food is, well, barely within the definition of food. It's very, very austere. And that's where these young men and some young women are serving and being asked to do these incredible things.

WALKER: One of the other points on education note is the end state for when marines are leaving, about 6 or 7000 marines leave the Marine Corps from Camp Pendleton every year. And they get varying degrees of transition assistance. Just last week transition assistance officer from around the country met in Washington DC to review how that program's been going. The commandant's been quite concerned that a lot of riflemen are getting out of the Marine Corps with little or now job skills, and they wind up unemployed, pleading to PTSD, homelessness, and those kind of issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I want to move on to the new commandant and to speak about general Amos, and mark, general James F. Amos is a new commandant. He was installed in October. What do we know about him?

WALKER: He's aged 67, he's an Idaho native, he's a pilot, the first commandant of the Marine Corps to come from the ranks of pilots. He's held assistant commandant positions for plans and policies, and also for development, so he's had all of the big hats, if you will. He know the corps inside and out. He'll actually be here again tomorrow at camp camp at Mira Mar, on Wednesday to meet with the troops. He seems quite open, he I think fits the mould of a Marine Corps commandant, if you will, when he see his position on don't can don't tell, it echos his predecessor General Conway's position. I think we'll find out a lot over the next year what he's going to be like over the next four. But I think one of the reasons he was selected was to lead the down size in the Marine Corps from 202,00 to 106,000, and go to that middle weight force that Gretel referred to, which is downsizing equipment lines also.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned don't ask don't tell, and that's what made headlines last week as general Amos, and some other top officers in the military spoke before a senate panel about don't ask don't tell. What did general Amos tell the senators?

WALKER: He told them that he remains opposed to the repeal of don't ask don't tell. He says it's going to hurt unit effectives. Particularly in combat. We saw it from the survery that about 66 percent of combat marines in fact do oppose the repeal of don't ask don't tell. He specifically also cited his concern that his commanders are so focused war preparation and war training and leading the groups on the ground in Afghanistan that this would be an unnecessary burden for them to have to deal with this at this time.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Gretel, this testimony came in contrast to the largely positive report released by Secretary of Defense gates showing the military was ready for a don't ask don't tell repeal. Why -- is that surprising to you that there should be this contradiction from the command not of the Marine Corps.

KOVACH: No, both the army and Marine Corps leaders express reservations and said that now is not the time. I think they are bearing the brunt of the ground combat burden right now in Afghanistan, and as everyone knows, we're in a really tough fight over there, and approximate I think it kid not come as a surprise that those combat leaders would say, let's steak -- let's wait.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tony, I saw a statistic, 56 percent of marines in combat said that they really wouldn't want to see don't ask don't tell overturned at this time, why do you think -- and that's the highest of any of the military. I'm wondering, why do you think this is more resistance to gays serving openly in the Marines than in other branches of the military.

PERRY: Well, the corp has a kind of splint personality in that it is very flexible on what it is they will do, as we said, they'll do land, they'll do air, they'll come in from the sea, they have their own air wing, they'll do windows, whatever you want done, they will do it. On the other hand, they are very, very resistance to anything that changes their innate Marine Corps culture. And I think that's what you're saying. I was not surprised, general Amos said not now, not while we're fighting a war. I was a little surprised that the army and the air force said that. Let's keep in mind be too, that the Navy said bring it on, we can do it right now. And also general Cartwright, marine corps officer who's number two of the joint chiefs, he agreed with the general chairman of the joint chiefs and said bring it on. So there is it a submit among the people with stars on their shoulders about whether this is the right time. And the report does mention historically, in the late 1940s when president Truman was thinking of integrating, there was great opposition, including from the Marine Corps that it wasn't the right time, and it wouldn't work, and why are we fooling around with something that works so well in World War II, are the separation of the various race, they went ahead, they accomplished it, and here we are today, the military, with some work is probably the best integrated facet of American society. So we have some history. It's an inexact analogy,in that, but it was brought up in the report as something to think about on whether we want to go ahead with this policy of repealing right now.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark, several people, several senators asked the top officials including general Amos whether or not the service members should have been asked whether or not the policy should be repealed in general. That was not on the questionnaire. All of the military people officers said no, we -- the military is not a democracy. So in that -- with that understanding, why is this resistance if most marines and combats say I'm not comfortable with this, why would that lead general Amos to make his statement in front of the senators saying now is not the time?

WALKER: I think it's culturally -- cultural. I think it's age. If you talk to young marines, in this demographic, the majority say, if you leave it, you know, in the closet, so to speak, you're not open about it, we dent care what your sexuality is. You find the resistance at the senior level, at the older level amongst marines.

KOVACH: And another interesting statistic they found in that report though is when they surveyed marines who had actually served with a -- another marine that they believed to be gay, they overwhelmingly said it had been a positive or neutral experience.

WALKER: No problem whatsoever.

KOVACH: Uh-huh. So one person I spoke to said this shows that there's a lot of fears of the unknown, but for those who have actual experience are they didn't have a problem with it at all.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. We have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue to talk about the Marine Corps, its new priorities changing education, and the response to don't ask don't ask, and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. .

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're talking about the changing mission of the U.S. Marine Corps with my guests, three journalists, who cover the military in San Diego. Mark Walker is a reporter with the North County Times, Gretel covap is a reporter with the San Diego Union Tribune, and Tony Perry, the San Diego bureau chief of the LA Times. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. That's 188895 KPBS. Sarina is calling from Mission Hills, and good morning, Sarina, welcome to These Days. Sarina are you with us? Flew new I am with us, thank you very much for taking my call. I of very appreciative of the fact that the Marine Corps is expanding into other areas. We are ambassadors to the world, and whatever they can do is helpful for peaceful worldwide. My big concern over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Marines seem to be against the repeal right now. And I think their thought it has something to do with sex. It has nothing to do with sex. Straight people and gay people can work side by side, they can fight side by side, it has nothing to do with sexual inclination. And my concern is that the Marines are putting way too much emphasis on this. It has to do with men and women who love our country, who fight for our country, and they are seen as shining lights to me. Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, Sarina, thank you for the call. We have a very similar call from Mary at camp pen. Good morning, Mary and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking to my call. I am the very proud wife of a command element marine board camp leather neck. And I find the former caller made a comment that it's not about sexuality or sexual preference. Actually, the Marine Corps, leadership has done exactly what they should be doing. Which is they are listening to their men and they are leading the people who are actually doing the ground work. The backbone of the Marine Corps, and general Amos, the former commandant of the Marine Corps and the commandant, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps know because they have been working in the Marine Corps for decades. The Marine Corps is made up of men and women who carry a burden they most of the general public can't do. And they do it willingly, openingly because they believe in the freedom, and they believe in this country. And in order to do that, you have to have unit cohesion, and you have to have a order of command. And in order to do that, you have to look at your whole climate and your whole atmosphere, and you have to look at the people that are doing the work. The Marine Corps as a whole has spoken on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We are handling something that has to be done before this comes up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you, Mary, and I was led to believe that your comment was like the previous caller's but it was not. And I do want to respond to both of our callers. So is it about, Tony, is it about sexuality or not or is it about culture.

PERRY: Well, I suppose it's about both. And I think over this entire discussion, I think we have to realize or maybe come to the conclusion that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is going away. And the question is, is it in 6 weeks 6 months or a couple of years? We're now quibbling, discussing, debating times. The actual policy, I think, there's generalized agreement that the policy served its purpose, and it's now time for it to go away. Don't forget, there's a court that's also dealing with this. And this may be taken out of the hands of the commander and chief, and out of the hands of the Congress, and that court may say, it's over and it's over today. So as Secretary of Defense gates says, if the legislature wants to hunker down and wait for the Courts to do it, they're rolling the dice.

WALKER: And also in response to Mary's comment, I think the people who support the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell will point to our neighboring countries [CHECK AUDIO] with no apparent problem, including troops in Afghanistan.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My final -- I'm sorry, go ahead, Gretel.

KOVACH: Including the briish. And they're sevening there right beside the Marines.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was gonna ask you, Gretel, and my last question about this, have you spoken with marines about this, perhaps marines who have lost a member of the unit because they have been outed and basically had to be discharged and what their feelings might have been about that.

KOVACH: Well, what I can say is that during my six weeks in had Afghanistan, on the ground with the Marines, oddly enough, the topic didn't come up not even one time. So I think that the Marines at these very remote patrol bases are kind of -- they're fireworksed on their mission at hand and they're not really a part of this discussion right now. And if the Courts go ahead and just suddenly thrust this on the Marine Corps and the other armed forces, I think it could potentially be disruptive, because I don't think the Marines on the ground are really prepared for what could happen.

WALKER: And Gretel's point is well taken. When you talk to young troops it never comes up. And if you talk to senior leadership, they will privately say they know it's coming. It's just a matter of when.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me speak about the new commandant of the Marine Corps again and his efforts to shift, perhaps, some of the emphasis, spread out the emphasis of the Marine Corps, make it a more multifaceted corps. Tony, how does he want the Marines to differentiate themselves from the army, as you made the point that is so important in the history of the U.S. marines.

PERRY: And that's the gordian knot that has to be sliced if the Marine Corps is to continue as it has been. Of why do we need -- the question is why do we need a second land army? We have this large, very competent entity called the U.S. Army. Why do we need another unit that does roughly the same sort of things? So they want to emphasize among other things the fact that they do come from the sea, and that they are there, and they're floating up and down even as we speak, they are floating up and down in various oceans waiting to go to shore, if something erupts in Yemen or Oman, or east Bangladesh, ear east timor, or other places that don't come to mind in in everyday conversation. That's their core duty and obligation. [CHECK AUDIO] they also have their own air wing. The army has to ask the air force for help. But by statute, the marine corps has its own air wing and believes that's the way to do, to marry up the ground pounders, the grunts if you will, with those high flying pilots. So there's a lot for the Marine Corps to claim as its mission that only it can do. But the question still remains, when we get involved in these protracted land wars, why do we need a second land army, and what the Marine Corps will not say, even though I think they believe it in their hearts, is that pound for pound they do it better than the army. They move faster and they are more flexible. That's a very dangerous and difficult argument for them to make but it's in their hearts I believe.

KOVACH: They say it too.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes. I've heard that as well. Now, Secretary of Defense gates is looking to make the military all the military services leaner and meaner, and I'm wondering how you think general Amos's priorities might fit into this over all strategy, Gretel?

KOVACH: Well, general Amos has said that there's a certain threshold below which they cannot fall below to be effective. Definitely he has said he expects them to be smaller in size and lighter in terms of the equipment so they can deploy or nimbly on their smaller amphibious assault ships. But he does not want the corps to go back to the days of, I believe, right before the Korean war started when it was down to the 70000, 80000, so I think they're looking more in the hundred and 8090 range.

PERRY: And we're looking more if you will, at the death of some of their more expensive item. [CHECK AUDIO] take marines from the ship to the shore, and it's got a real fancy price tag. I wouldn't put a lot of money in Las Vegas that that thing is gonna see the light of day. I think that's one of the things that Amos is gonna say, we'd like to have it, can't afford it.

WALKER: [CHECK AUDIO]?

A. And how long a period of time for that?

WALKER: I think over about a four-year period, kind of roughly matching up the expected length that we're still gonna be in Afghanistan.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. So there are already plans in the work to make this a leaner and meaner -- well, at least a leaner squad. Tony, one topic that's very disturbing that came up about the Marines in recent months, and you wrote an article about Marine Corps suicides, recently. Tell us about the scope of that problem.

PERRY: I've seen the statistics in the last 30 days, maybe mark or Gretel have.

WALKER: I think it was five in the last month.

PERRY: So the Marine Corps last year had more suicides per hundred thousand than any military service, even more than the army, and there's always that compare contrast with the army. And they have tried everything. They've tried small group discussions, they've tried videos, they've tried all sorts of things to get the Marines to take care of their buddies. When he starts to talk suicide or starts to talk, I have nothing to live for, move on it thissen issue move on it quickly. Get the chaplain involved, get the noncommissioned officers involves, get the captain involved, don't just sit there and say he always talks like that. Because we have seen that either in Afghanistan or here in garrison, suicide is a major problem not only for certain families, but for the entire unit. I don't think there's anything more devastating to a unit than to have a suicide in their midst. I was in Helmand last summer where they had had a suicide, a young man who had gotten a dear John letter killed himself, 19, 20 years from Southern California. And it was devastating to the rest of the troops. Why didn't we see it? Why didn't we do anything? It's quite a problem the Marine Corps has.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And mark, does concern about this go all the way up the ranks to the commandant?

WALKER: It does, it does. I think there's been a real recognition of it over the last three years primarily. And I think that they have been doing everything they can to seriously address it. They're dispatching what are called Oscar teams with battalions now that are made up of psychologists, mental health specialists, they are on the ground with the troops in Afghanistan to treat them on the ground there, rather than having to ship somebody before they're treated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You talked about, Mark, when we you were mentioning the expanded education priorities of the new commandant that was on the tail end too. That they want to do something more to boy up families ask to make services like for posttraumatic stress more available to marines when they're leaving the service as well.

WALKER: Right, the big problem, the big concern is that so many people are coming out of the Marine Corps now without marketable skills in a very, very tough economy. So they want to make sure that they're taking advantage of $4,000 of free education that's offered to each marine a year. The kind of training so he's going to be really pushing for marines that aren't going to be making the service a career, to take advantage of those opportunities so they are prepared for civilian life.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Gretel?

KOVACH: Another issue you're looking at with the combat stress issues is the amount of dwell time the Marines are having between these deployments. And the commandant recently when he was visiting San Diego said they were trying to get that back to a two-one ratio so they can rest between these deployments, and the Marines have been running, you know, hot and heavy, fast and hard for nearly a decade now. And as soon as they get back from one of these deployment, they're already doing their work ups and training very long and hard hours to go back over seas. And they think that longer time at home with their family could really help to relieve some of the stress.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Relieve some -- right, right, to give them some more down time to actually find out what's wrong with them before they have to go back. I'm wandering, my final question to you all is, if you could look into a crystal ball and see the Marine Corps in ten years, Tony, what do you think might be the changes that we would see?

PERRY: I think the changes would be minimal. I think in ten years they will have a pantheon of heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan, that young 19-year-olds will look up to. One of the distinguishing features of the Marine Corps is that it lives with its history and its heroes unlike any other institution in America. Of I think in ten years when a young 19-year-old goes to those Marine Corps footprints, [CHECK AUDIO] it will be indistinguishable from the Marine Corps today [CHECK AUDIO] and any changes will be on the superficial level. The Marine Corps culture, I think is in tact, will remain in tact, and young men and young women will respond to it and say I want to see if I'm tough enough.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. Gretel.

KOVACH: We don't know what kind of equipment they might have, we don't know if they'll have the expeditionary fighting vehicle or if they will have their special short take off vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter jet that they've ordered. So those are -- those huge he expensive weapons programs are still up in the air.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And mark.

WALKER: And fundamentally, I agree with Tony that the character and culture of the Marine Corps is not going to change greatly other than you will see gays and lesbianing serving openly in the Marine Corps ten years from now. And I think it'll be a little bit more of a professional organization than it is today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you mean by that?

WALKER: I think you'll see officers and enlisted men with a lot higher education than troops may have had a few years ago.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Interesting. I want to thank you all for talking to us today. Tony Perry and Gretel covap and Mark Walker thank you so much. Of.

WALKER: Thank you.

PERRY: Thank you.

KOVACH: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you would like to comment, please go line, KPBS.org/These Days. Stay with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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