Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Our untapped resource: Junior enlisted

Here’s one of our biggest military secrets: The greatest untapped resource in the Marine Corps is the E-1 to E-5 community.




By Sgt. Jon Gillis, USMC
Best Defense guest contributor

Here’s one of our biggest military secrets: The greatest untapped resource in the Marine Corps is the E-1 to E-5 community.

There are two reasons for that. First, the junior enlisted community is the closest to the smallest points of friction. Those are the ones that leaders often don’t recognize, but that add up over time to create the service level problems that we pour much of our time and energy into solving. Secondly, the junior enlisted community is a lot more capable than leaders usually assume.

Here’s an example of that fact. During my first three years in the Marine Corps, I worked with an accountant, an investment banker, a legal assistant, an aerospace engineer, a teacher, a firefighter, and a bunch of retired drug dealers.

The crazy thing, thankfully for the drug dealers especially, is that none of them were doing those jobs in the Marine Corps. In fact, every person on that list was an infantryman — specifically, a machine gunner or an anti-tank missileman. They were all enlisted, they were all sergeants and below. And that was just in one infantry platoon. In short, the Marine Corps has an enormous pool of talent in its junior ranks that is just waiting to be exploited.

With all of this ability, it seems like we should have a vibrant culture of ingenuity and innovation at the enlisted level. But instead we often find a bleak wasteland; we are convinced that we have more rock-chewers than outside-the-box thinkers.

This paradox is puzzling, especially to the enlisted Marines themselves. In conversations at the barracks, my buddies and I would often wonder, Why are we so stupid? Why do junior Marines get treated like we know nothing? And then why do we return the favor by acting like that’s true?

What we discovered is that we were our own worst enemies. We had created a self-reinforcing culture in which small unit leaders refused to recognize that their new Marines arrived with any skills and abilities of their own. We demanded that new Marines shed all of their prior experiences, all of their expertise, and just become “the New Guys” — the “boots.” One term that summed them all up.

In the Marine Corps, “boots” are stupid. They’re young, inexperienced, childish, and naive. So generation after generation of squad leaders sets out to “raise the boots” by putting them through the standard boot protocol — they “break everything down Barney style,” they “hold their hands,” and they teach them not to question or challenge authority under any circumstances.

When you follow boot protocol, it’s supposed to spit out John Basilone. You’re supposed to get a fearless machine of obedience and discipline. But instead you get an idiot.

And then we blame the Marines, assuming that they must just be another group of rock-chewers, never stopping to wonder when we ourselves went from idiot to all-star.

Two years ago, I was one of those idiots. I was stumbling over my words and cowering before my squad leader. I was so nervous around non-Commissioned Officers that I would walk around the block to avoid passing them. And this was the case just one year after I had graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in political science. Repeat that formula a few thousand times, and you can see how big the problem can get.

The question is, how do we stop? How do we engineer a culture change? And what happens when we do?

When I first became a fire team leader, I was still a boot. Most of the time, a team leader would be a senior Marine, but my platoon ran out of seniors, so a fire team of boots was stood up. We called ourselves “Team Non-Rate.”

Even though I was the team leader, I couldn’t rule Team Non-Rate with an iron fist; we were all boots together, so no one felt obligated to defer to me. Instead, we had to learn how to work as a team, to leverage each member’s abilities, and to make group decisions whenever possible. We quickly found that we had plenty of ability to work with. One guy was a phenomenal diesel mechanic (important in a mounted platoon), another an excellent utility player, and the third a natural tactician. Once we liberated that talent, we began to outpace and outperform every other team in the platoon.

We then took that same approach and applied it to the squad level — same result. By treating our new Marines as peers instead of children, we soon built the top performing platoon in the battalion. Our Marines were volunteering to stay after work to practice clearing rooms together. They were excelling in advanced infantry courses long before they were expected to attend them. We had, as one of my buddies put it, a whole platoon of “thinking shooters.” Other squad leaders throughout the battalion, who for months had mocked our “soft” approach to training, began asking for the secret to our success. Our response — just treat them like people.

As thinking shooters, we found opportunities for improvement everywhere. In fact, by grooming a culture of critical thinkers, we eventually found ourselves uniquely positioned to help develop a technology we hoped to use in our own operations.

We knew we needed access to small tactical drones, but it seemed unlikely that they would be fielded to squads any time soon. We searched for an alternative, and eventually arrived at an unconventional solution — we could design and 3-D print small unmanned aerial systems ourselves. We had an aerospace engineer in our ranks, and we knew what we would need from a low-cost drone. We just needed some drone hobbyists.

So in May 2016, I began to ask around for drone experts. Unsurprisingly, I found them at the junior enlisted level — three corporals, a lance corporal, and a Private first class. Together we put together an actionable proposal to design and 3-D print UAS at the enlisted level.

In September 2016, that proposal won an innovation contest sponsored by Installations and Logistics command, and eventually it gave birth to a full research and development program focused on fielding a suite of 3D-printed drones to infantry battalions beginning this year. I&L even sent our corporal engineer out to San Francisco to work on the project full-time as an “innovator-in-residence” at a major software company.

In summary, there is an untold amount of hidden talent in the junior enlisted ranks, and it is incumbent on all of us to help uncover it. For enlisted leaders, that is going to mean discarding boot protocol and learning to mentor thinking shooters rather than “raise boots.” For the organization, it is going to mean creating opportunities to identify and capitalize on the ingenuity of its junior enlisted Marines.

We need to offer Marines the opportunity to apply into certain jobs rather than hope to be nominated for them. We need to continue to actively solicit ideas for improvement through innovation contests, and then allow the winning Marines to continue working on those projects once they are selected. And we need to develop a network of liaison officers that can help us identify outstanding Marines and connect them to the organizations and offices that can benefit from their experiences and expertise.

The Marine Corps doesn’t recruit rock-chewers — it builds them. With a few cultural changes, it is my experience that we can just as easily build thinking shooters instead.

Sgt Jon Gillis is an infantryman serving as a science and technology advisor with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. The views expressed herein are his personal opinions and do not reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Marine Corps.

Photo credit: Sgt. Jon Gillis

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1