BACK in June, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) arrived at its home base - Camp Lejeune, N.C. - after a standard six-month deployment in the Mediterranean. Scarcely a week later, the unit was ordered to pack for Haiti.
As the 24th returned home again on Tuesday to a wash of flags and long embraces, Marine Corps officials expressed concern that the unit's nearly unbroken 30-week marathon at sea is tangible proof that the Marines are being stretched too thin.
``We're using equipment at a greater rate than it was designed for, and we're deployed to the limits of our service,'' says Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, assistant deputy chief of staff for the Marine Corps. ``And I don't foresee any signs that portend a lessening.''
Always geared toward rapid response to far-off crises, the Marines have been in great demand recently, solidifying their role as the nation's foreign-policy 911 service. But faced with more deployments and militarywide funding cuts, corps officials confirm that the average Marine is spending more time in the field.
``The biggest challenge facing the Marine Corps is the rapidity with which they're getting used,'' says Don Snider, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. ``It has turned into a definite morale problem.''
Gen. Bernard Trainor (Ret.) says that although the Marines have the youngest fighting force (two-thirds are under age 25), they spend a great deal of time away from their families putting out fires abroad. In 1991, for example, while 85 percent of the corps was deployed in the Persian Gulf, other units responded to crises in Liberia, Somalia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
Marine Corps statistics show that Marines already spend up to two of their first four years away from base camp and that the standard deployment pattern (12- to 18-month breaks between six-month deployments) has become a hard promise to keep.
The ordeal of the 24th MEU, General Trainor says, is the kind of overdeployment that can prevent the best personnel from reenlisting. ``If you keep sending people off on long deployments, they're not going to stick around.''
A study released last week by a Defense Department task force on readiness notes ``pockets'' of difficulty that, if left unremedied, could bring the military back to the ``hollow'' status of the late 1970s.
The report said that ``lengthy or frequent contingency deployments'' of the Marines are having a negative effect on training.
Mr. Snider contends that part of the problem is the ambiguous nature of engagements like the recent one in Somalia, in which US troops were forced to balance conflicting missions of combat and humanitarian relief. Snider says that although limited wars are always difficult at the political level, decisiveness is far better from a military perspective.
``When the military gets yanked around a lot, recruiting goes down,'' Snider says. ``With the economy improving, young people have better options today, and they're starting to say, `I'm not so sure I want to go to Somalia and get shot.''' Using Haiti as an example, Snider argues that the Clinton administration's inability to make tough foreign-policy decisions is ``running the armed forces into the ground.''
``If you deploy them, you've got to use them,'' says Marty Binkin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ``You have to use your head on things like this. The Marines will always stand up and say, `We can do it.' They won't say that it might be bad for morale.''
BUT other analysts contend that the real problem lies not with the current administration's policies or the lack of funds, but with the military command structure itself.
According to Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information, in Washington, the 24th was sent to Haiti, not because it was the freshest unit, but because military command structure dictates that each branch of service must maintain a presence in Europe, the Indian Ocean, and the West Pacific.
Because of this policy - designed with the goal of being prepared to fight two separate wars at the same time - a Marine amphibious unit that had just arrived in the Mediterranean was not allowed to respond.
``This strategy chains you up,'' Admiral Carroll says. ``There isn't enough money coming into the cycle to sustain these force levels and operations. Something's gotta give.''
Carroll says that if more forces were removed from the European command, a logical step in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, the military could maintain a high level of readiness in US bases.
Instead, Carroll says, the services fight to maintain these ``forward deployments'' because they require bigger force levels and larger budgets. With total armed-services troop levels down to 1.7 million from a peak of 2.2 million in 1987, he says, ``keeping troops all around the world all the time is becoming a problem.''