General brings new style to boot camp

At tough-as-nails Parris Island, Marine leaders work to flunk fewer

Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney is no ordinary Marine Corps base commander.

For one thing, the well-proportioned General Cheney is a practicing triathlete and master swimmer. He devours The Wall Street Journal daily and The Economist weekly, and is an expert on Sino-American affairs.

And, the man who runs this tough-as-nails boot camp has brought a new leadership style that is aimed at meeting the needs of a changing military service in a changing society.

He's doing his best to ensure that as many as possible of the young men and women who arrive here become marines, instead of flunking their first tough test of whether they belong among "the few and the proud."

"Some say you run out the weak ones and you'll make a better corps," Cheney says. "I'm not saying we have a kinder, gentler boot camp. My point is that someone convinced this person they should become a marine. We're not here to run them out."

Cheney feels he is at Parris Island to be part of a Marine Corps effort to rethink a fundamental philosophy at a time when all the military services are strapped to find willing and able enlistees.

And, after years of failure of recruits at a higher rate than the other services, the Marines have come down to earth a bit, both in their training philosophy and the practical application of it.

A small but significant example: Cheney's knowledge of the lower-leg injuries that come to athletes who run led him to change the rules and allow Parris Island trainees to alternate days they wear hard-soled boots and tennis shoes during their first month.

Although that kind of softening would have raised eyebrows among Marine generals a generation ago when Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest practices were more common, the changes are having their effect.

In the past year, the attrition rate - which had been plummeting before Cheney arrived last summer - has been cut by nearly half for male recruits and by a third for women.

During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Parris Island losses fell from about 20 percent for men to 10 percent. Among women, it dropped from 24 to about 16 percent. The higher graduation figure translates into about 800 more marines a year.

That number is not trivial in a recruiting climate that Cheney acknowledges is extremely difficult for all the services. Although the Marines are the only one of the four services to meet recruiting goals the past two years, they've done it largely "on the backs of our recruiters," he says.

While the average number of hours worked per week for all military recruiters has climbed to 66, the Marines work even longer schedules. According to a Department of Defense survey, Marine recruiters work on average 80 hours a week.

Each boot-camp failure, Cheney says, "is another marine we have to recruit."

These days, the services invest enormous efforts to find a single soldier or sailor. Last year, the Navy missed its year-end recruiting goal by about 7,000 sailors. This year, the Army missed its goals by about the same number while the Air Force had its worst year in two decades.

David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, believes the new philosophy at Parris Island serves a couple of purposes. It reflects new leadership styles in all four branches of the military, and it no doubt takes pressure off beleaguered recruiting commands.

"Basically, it is not a good time to recruit, with all the services having the same problem," Mr. Segal says.

In an era of finite resources, Segal suspects that many commanders will be graded on how effective they are helping people graduate, not fail. "I'm clearly hearing things I didn't use to hear."

For the Marines, this is new territory. The heroes of Iwo Jima and Khe Sanh are now slightly less elite and a bit more like their sister services when it comes to boot camp.

Some believe that it would be a mistake to accuse the Marines of going soft, however.

Maj. Bryan Salas, a Parris Island spokesman, notes the Marines still have the toughest basic training standards. "It's training smarter, not softer," he says.

Cheney's own philosophy is based in part on prior experience. His rsum includes a stint as a training commander at the Marine Corps's San Diego recruit depot. Something of a foreign policy wonk, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and also a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

And, he can take the office home. His wife, Roxanne, is a Marine colonel assigned as coordinator for business reform at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.

"He gets frustrated. Some people believe [Cheney's job] is to graduate a series of Chesty Pullers," says Colonel Cheney, referring to legendary Lt. Gen. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, history's most decorated marine.

"His job is to turn out a basic marine who can then go on to subsequent training and perhaps grow into a Chesty Puller," she adds.

His wife feels he has one trait absolutely necessary for his job of transforming civilians into marines. He is, she says, "an eternal optimist."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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