SAN CLEMENTE — "There's an old saying in the Marines," Staff Sgt. Jason Mann intoned Thursday. "If the Marine Corps wanted you to be married, they would have issued you a wife."
In a Marine Corps dominated by regimen, hierarchy and tradition, there may be more truth to that maxim than some would like to admit. That much became clear Wednesday when Marine officials made public a ban on married recruits who enlist after September, 1995, but then, in an embarrassing turnabout, retracted the order hours later under pressure from the White House.
Although the proposal is dead, it lived long enough to touch a nerve in the local military community, where young Marines spoke Thursday about the stress of being married to both a spouse and the Marine Corps, whose credo matches any marital vow: Semper Fi-- Always Faithful.
Marines pride themselves on being a highly mobile force, ready to "mount out" to the Persian Gulf, Somalia, or places scarcely heard of within hours or days of being called to action. Units are often deployed for months at a time, and the long absence takes a toll back on the home front.
"If you're a Marine, you're going to have to pack that bag and head out alone," said El Toro Gunnery Sgt. Christopher Cravey, 40, an Alabama native who is separated from his wife of 17 years. "Most of the time we're floating on a boat, waiting to jump on somebody."
"We're the world's 911 force," said Sgt. Marcelino Del Valle, 25, a Camp Pendleton Marine from New York City who is married, has two children and is expecting a third. "Anything that breaks out anywhere, they come looking for us. Young Marines overseas, they turn to alcohol or other things when they start thinking about infidelity or financial problems (at home). . . . A lot of guys come back from deployment and find their credit cards are overdrawn and their wife's left them."
Officials at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro wouldn't discuss the erstwhile marriage ban Thursday, saying it is still under review in Washington. "At this point in time, for us it's a non-issue," said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, base spokeswoman.
However, Marine spokeswoman Lt. Kim Miller in Washington said Thursday that domestic problems have become an increasing problem over the last decade.
While specific numbers were not available, Miller said that divorces and separations among the nearly 180,000 Marines jumped 75% from 1983 to 1993--even as the divorce rate has declined in the civilian community. Nearly half of all Marines today are married, up more than 7% from 1983, she said.
Increases in marriage and divorce among Marines worry Marine policy makers.
"They are concerned that it affects the readiness of the corps," Miller said. "That was the driving force behind the new policy."
In recent years, the corps has bolstered its domestic support services for personnel at El Toro and other bases, expanding programs that offer counseling, seminars and legal and financial assistance.
Yet in a clear indication of how separations affect military marriages, officials at Camp Pendleton reported as much as 25% more divorce proceedings immediately after the Persian Gulf War. Worse, the Marines are also experiencing rising numbers of suicides and domestic violence, according to military officials.
From the standpoint of marriage, things were different back in the days of what former Leathernecks call the "old corps."
Orange County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who entered politics after retiring as a Marine general, remembers joining the Marines in 1935, during the days of a two-year ban on marriage for recruits. He thought that policy worked well.
The financial and emotional pressures on new Marines today only magnify the need for such a restriction, Riley said.
"My God, going through recruit training today is a major accomplishment without having to worry about a wife and maybe children," he said. "I just think that they can give their full attention to training. You can come back to the barracks at night and you don't have to worry about the wife and how she's getting along. It removes a major additional concern."
Staff Sgt. Mann of Burbank, 30, a 13-year veteran from Burbank, agrees:
"Back when I got married in 1983, I had to get permission from the commanding officer. (The policy) is different now, but there are so many problems connected with being married and being a young Marine, it definitely puts a strain on any marriage."
Mann said he managed to avert the problems by marrying another Marine.
As a fellow Marine, his wife already knew all the privations of the lifestyle, he said. But Mann believes that many other wives "just can't handle the military life. They can't stand their husbands being away all the time."
And life is often no easier on the Marines than their partners.
Lance Cpl. Miguel Pires, 20, of Newark, N.J., is single, but he says he sees how tough it is for some of his married friends to juggle marriage and the military.