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Marine Commandant Striving for Leaner, Meaner Fighting Machine

February 05, 1989|MOLLY MOORE | The Washington Post

PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — Eighteen-year-old Marine Pvt. Jeff Hickman is down in the dirt, cheek jammed into the metal of an M-60 machine gun that is spitting bone-jolting rounds at an enemy target across the flat marsh.

He leaps from the trench and darts behind a board wall, pokes the barrel through a fake window opening and fires another round. He turns and dives into a nearby sandbag bunker, braces his shoulder and fires again. Wooden pop-up targets lie wounded on the South Carolina marsh.

Hickman, who grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore hunting deer and squirrel, is one of the new breed of Marine recruits--the boot-camp troops who are training for Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Alfred M. Gray's meaner, leaner, green fighting machine.

His Marines do not go to "boot camp" anymore; those grueling, gut-busting first 11 weeks are now called Basic Warrior Training. Marines no longer become mere infantrymen; they are commandos--trained to take a terrorist base in the Persian Gulf as skillfully as they can storm a beach in the South Pacific.

Battle Over Image

In his first 17 months as commandant of the 197,000-member Marine Corps, Gray, a tobacco-chewing bulldog of a general who tromps around the Pentagon in combat fatigues, has waged a crusade to return the service to its "war-fighting image." He has taken his campaign on the road to a service stung by the Marine embassy guard spy scandals and still haunted by the 1983 bombing that killed 241 Americans at the Marine barracks in Beirut.

"We are warriors and people who support warriors," Gray, who was the U.S.-based commander of the men who died in Beirut, told a group of Marines during one of his field tours to promote the new image. "We're not too fancy. We're not a whole bunch of other things. What you see is what you got."

In recent years, many Marine leaders weren't very pleased with what they saw or what they got.

These officers took a dim view of the complex, costly, heavy weapons such as the M-1 tank and AV-8B Harrier jumpjet the Corps helped itself to during the Reagan era's military buildup. These leaders feared that the Marines were getting too fat and heavy for their mission as an expeditionary force.

Rethinking on Weapons

Battalions were being loaded down by tanks and artillery that would take up valuable ship space and slow the quick-response forces in a war emergency, some officials said. Others argued that the equipment would be useless in the smaller-scale, Third World conflicts that the Marine Corps is most likely to face today. Gray ordered his top officers to rethink how those weapons are used and, in some cases, whether the Corps needs them at all.

Gray and other Marine leaders also were alarmed by their belief that the platoons were inadequately trained in basic combat skills.

"Whoever heard of a marine who wasn't skilled in weaponry?" growled Chief Warrant Officer Jim Jerrolds, head of training at the Parris Island firing range for the past seven years. "That, unfortunately, was what was happening. We weren't putting Marines out in the field who were qualified to use all the weapons in an infantry battalion."

But even as Gray seeks to launch some of the most sweeping changes in the training and structure of his fighting forces since the Vietnam War, and faces the problems of an aging air- and sea-transport force, congressional leaders and budget analysts are warning the new Bush Administration and the Defense Department to brace for an era of sharply declining defense budgets.

'Tighten Our Belts'

"Things are going to get tighter now," said Maj. Gen. Michael P. Sullivan, deputy commander for war-fighting, a new position created under Gray to plan the combat needs of the Marine Corps. "There's only so much to go around. We'll tighten our belts."

Meanwhile, Gray is pushing his overhaul of the Marine Corps, beginning with the new recruits--33,400 men and 1,130 women who have enlisted this year.

"We need to teach these high-school graduates with their football letters from East Cupcake, Neb., a little bit about being street-wise," Gray told a group of sergeants at Cherry Point (N.C.) Marine Corps Station this year.

Since February, the Corps has crammed 60 more hours of training into those rigorous weeks at the Parris Island and San Diego training centers where young "boots" are stripped of their civilian identities--more time on the firing range, more marches, more hand-to-hand combat, more night training, more sweat. Requirements are the same for male and female recruits, although training for the women is tailored to be more defensive than offensive.

Coils of Razor Wire

It is barely daybreak and recruits are slithering on their bellies through the black mud and whining mosquito clouds of a Carolina marsh, inching under coils of razor wire as ear-piercing explosions thunder all around.

In a steamy gymnasium, other recruits are writhing in the chokeholds of their partners in hand-to-hand combat training.

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