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Top Marine Says He 'Blindsided' the President


WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps admitted Thursday that he "blindsided" President Clinton by failing to warn the Administration that he was planning to bar married people from enlisting after 1995, but he said he continues to support the idea as a sound one.

At a Pentagon press conference, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr. said he "did not adequately inform my civilian superiors of the policy that I was putting forth," adding that "it's not one of my prouder moments in history here. I would . . . try not to do it again."

At the same time, however, Mundy defended the move as advisable, saying the marital strains being experienced by young, first-term enlistees are causing increasing morale problems in the Corps and are threatening to impinge on the military readiness of younger troops.

But Mundy said he is satisfied with an announcement by Defense Secretary Les Aspin that ordered a study of issues involving first-term enlistees in all the military services--a review that will include the question of whether to bar married recruits.

Mundy's mea culpa appeared to lessen some of the sting that occurred Wednesday, when the commandant's original order was made public. But it did little to resolve questions about how the incident occurred.

Even so, the general appeared to be in little danger of losing his job over the incident. Asked whether he would resign following the flap, Mundy replied: "No. I've never thought of resigning." And a senior Administration official said that Mundy's job is secure.

Mundy did not address statements Wednesday by Pentagon officials, who said he told them after the incident that he had not personally approved the message, which outlined the new policy to Marines worldwide, and that he had not seen the text before it was announced.

The suggestion that such an order could have been issued without Mundy's approval was met with skepticism from civilians, many of whom found it difficult to imagine that the commandant's name could have appeared on a document that he did not review.

But sources familiar with the situation said Mundy and other top Marine Corps officers had authorized such procedures in limited cases where they previously had approved a policy, allowing high-ranking subordinates to send out implementing orders in their names.

The sources said Mundy had sanctioned the no-married-recruits policy in principle during several meetings on the issue over the past few months, and--except in hindsight following Wednesday's flap--would not have expected his aides to clear the implementing message with him.

They also insisted that Marine Corps leaders did not fully realize the political impact that the proposed ban on married recruits would have, particularly in the Clinton Administration.

Mundy told those at the press conference Thursday that he had focused more intently on a companion proposal that would have required first-term enlistees contemplating marriage to undergo counseling designed to warn them of the risks involved.

Critics asserted that the Corps' seeming political insensitivity in dealing with the issue reflected an insular and regimented culture that frequently leads the Marines to go their own way.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former Pentagon manpower official, said the Marines have "a culture of their own" in which they see themselves "as sort of the last bastion for preserving traditional values," opposing the entry of women and homosexuals into the service.

Korb said the same culture would also tend to prompt Marines not to consider the political ramifications of their actions. "The Marines don't think they work for any one Administration," Korb said. "They think they work for the country."

Mundy's order, issued last week but not made public until Wednesday, said the Corps would no longer accept married recruits after Sept. 30, 1995. The prohibition was to have been phased in gradually, beginning Oct. 1 of this year.

It also directed that first-term enlistees planning to be married undergo counseling by their commanding officers. The sessions would be designed to point out the possible pitfalls of life on a private's pay and long family separations caused by overseas deployments.

The White House said Clinton and Aspin had both been unaware of Mundy's order and that the President had been "astonished." by it. Aspin immediately rescinded the commandant's new policy and ordered that any future proposals be cleared with civilian authorities.

Mundy reiterated Thursday that the difficulties of living on a Marine private's pay of only $11,000 a year--or $17,000 for married Marines--and long separations necessitated by deployments to various trouble spots take their toll on 17- to 19-year-olds.

He said the divorce rate among first-term enlistees is rising steadily. "We are concerned that we have a stable family out there, that we have young families that are stable, that they're able to cope with all of these stresses of today's operations," he said.

In view of Aspin's order, the commandant said, the no-married-recruits policy had been "put on hold," pending the outcome of the new study. At the same time, a senior Pentagon official said that Aspin generally approved of the plan to require more counseling.

"I had no intention to throw any political hand grenades," Mundy said Thursday. "My purpose is to serve this Administration and to run the most effective Marine Corps that I possibly can."

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