WASHINGTON — Sgt. David Wikler, a 25-year-old Marine stationed at Southern California's Camp Pendleton, has survived three grueling months of boot camp and lengthy deployments in most of the world's hot spots. And his four-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Debra, has survived as well.
But four of the five Marine buddies who rose through the ranks with him have not been so lucky, Wikler said. Married early--often to young women they hardly knew and who poorly understood the rigors of a Marine's life--all but one of his comrades are divorced.
"For many of them, it's like when you buy a car that's a lemon," said Wikler, not intending to minimize the emotional impact that divorce can have on an 18-year-old. "It can distract them from the mission; it can mean time away from work. And the person just doesn't have his head in what he's doing."
In the world of the Marines, it means that a man could get himself--and his buddies--killed while he ponders his marital missteps. And since his unit's survival--and that of the Corps--may depend on his attention to duty, it means that he probably never should have been permitted to be both married and a Marine, right?
Wrong, the Administration said last week after Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr. directed his recruiters to bar married people from enlisting after 1995 and ordered Marines preparing to take the marital plunge to get "counseling" from their commanders.
President Clinton promptly declared himself "astonished" by both the intrusiveness of the order and the fact that Mundy issued it without so much as a tip of his cap to the Pentagon's civilian leaders.
While Pentagon officials said they recognize the usefulness of further counseling programs, they quickly reversed the prohibition against married Marine recruits and set up a panel to study the issue.
The episode was yet another skirmish between the White House and the armed forces over social issues ranging from roles for women to access to abortion to homosexual rights. More broadly, experts said, it represents yet another collision of two distinct worlds--the civilian and the military--whose central values are strikingly different.
Whether the subject is married Marines or open homosexuality, the conflict is the same: Civilian society, and the Administration in particular, hold the notion that the rights of the individual supersede those of the larger group. The military, and the tradition-bound Marine Corps in particular, take the view that the needs of the group overwhelm all but the most basic rights of the individual.
And marriage, Mundy appeared to say last week, is not one of those basic rights.
But times, it would seem, are changing.
Through the Cold War and 12 years of military-minded Republican administrations, the armed forces' definitions of those basic rights have gone unchallenged, said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on personnel policy.
"Now it's a different day, and it's a hard adjustment for them to make," Schroeder said. "They seem to have a nostalgia for the days when the Marines were just a group of guys and their only focus was the Corps: the few, the proud, the family-less. But that's not going to work."
The tempest also illustrates how insulated the military is from the strains and ferment of American society outside its bases. Even among the military's most senior leaders, several politicians said, there is a surprising lack of awareness of the political values that reign over Washington.
"The Marines especially have a kind of tin ear--they're just not politically very sensitive," one senior defense official said. "In fact, all the armed services have kind of a tin ear, but the Marines have a particularly bad case. It never occurred to them there could be any problem. It's an interesting commentary on the fact they just don't understand."
But while the social strains of the outside world may be a distant reality to many service members, the unique strains of their own world are only too real to them.
American military forces are being stretched thinner by budget cuts. Troops are being returned to U.S. bases in record numbers in the aftermath of the Cold War, while nationalism surges in once-mighty U.S. military outposts, such as the Philippines. Yet the demands for American military action appear not to have abated.
As a result, troops from all services are likely to spend longer and longer periods on lengthy assignments far from their families. They will be paid a salary that starts at little more than $11,000 a year. And perhaps most important, they will still be 18- and 19-year-olds away from home for the first time in a confusing and dangerous world.