The Marine Corps is making moves on the training front yet again. The Marine Corps Times revealed recently that beginning this year the Marine Corps School of Infantry (Infantry Training Battalion) will now be extended to 14 weeks, up from its previous eight-week-long course. The new course at the School of Infantry will be called the “Infantry Marine Course” and the Marine Corps claims it will greatly benefit the quality of Marines arriving at their unit.

The Marine Corps School of Infantry (SOI) is the follow-up training where all Marines receive combat training after they graduate bootcamp. Once Marines arrive at the School of Infantry (located at both Camp Geiger, NC and Camp Pendleton, CA) they are divided into two distinct groups based on their individual Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). All Marines who have an “infantry” MOS attend the Infantry Training Battalion, while all non-infantry Marines attend a school called Marine Combat Training.

 

The School of Infantry in the Past

Historically, the purpose of the school has been to train Marines on additional weapons systems and tactics that they didn’t receive much exposure to during recruit training. Weapons systems such as the M-240 Golf and the .50 cal machine gun aren’t exactly common weapons for Marines to fire in boot camp; the only weapon “variation” I recall experiencing in boot camp was shooting in daylight, in low-light and at night, and that was still all with a single weapon system, the M-16 A-2 service rifle.

School of Infantry LAW training
Marine in SOI practices shooting the LAW; an anti-tank weapon system. (Photo by Sgt. Jeremy Laboy/USMC)

It wasn’t until I got to the School of Infantry that I was (at least basically) trained in the operation and troubleshooting of many other weapons systems. The SOI is also where we got to practice throwing our first grenades and learned our first real patrolling and close-quarters combat skills. We practiced Land-Navigation (I swear I didn’t cheat) and we worked on shooting our weapons in a myriad of conditions: day, night, no aim point and shoot, under and around obstacles, you name it. It was actually a blast.

The only real issue I had with the training at the SOI was that we only learned the weapons at a surface level. There would be no one leaving training who would say they had now become super-soldiers well-versed in various weapons systems and combat skills. Although we shot the weapons systems enough, we didn’t become proficient at them.

 

Less Training at War More at School of Infantry

Historically, the Infantry Training Battalion Course was 59-days long, while Marine Combat Training was 29-days long. That made sense (especially when I attended in 2000), because the logic was that while all Marines are riflemen, only certain Marines ever have much chance of seeing combat. Only 15 months after I attended, 9/11 turned all of that logic on its head. Marines of all MOS’s were being deployed and it became less of a question of one’s MOS and more of a question of which base one was stationed at.

Once 9/11 happened, there was no longer any time for Marines to do lengthy workups before they were sent to war. Because of that, Marines were often sent straight into combat and, in a sense, had to do on-the-job (OJT) training. Unlike learning how to put the right amount of cheese on a Pizza Hut pie, however, these men were doing OJT while at war. Talk about a steep learning curve.

According to a Marine Corps Times report about the SOI training update, the amount of Marines being deployed over the last 20 years is why the Marine Corps has decided to up the training time an additional six weeks.

Infantry Integrated Field Training Exercise Marines
A Marine sergeant passes final instructions before assaulting an objective during the Infantry Integrated Field Training Exercise aboard Camp Geiger, N.C. (Photo by CWO2 Paul S. Mancuso/USMC)

While still very much in the heat of the war in the early to mid-2000s, the Marine Corps leadership likely didn’t believe that a major training change was a viable option. Beyond that, Marine leaders simply didn’t have the time to consider these changes. Now that the war in Afghanistan has officially ended, the Marine Corps Command Staff has determined that it is better for Marines to finish their cycle of OJT while in training rather than at war. That way, when Marines graduate from the SOI, they are ready to plug straight into their new unit without missing a beat. Sure, there will always be tricks of the trade to learn and little tweaks to make in their performance, but generally speaking, Marines of 2021 and beyond should be better prepared for anything they encounter following their training cycle.

 

03XX for All

A second reason given for the change is that the Marine Corps Command Staff is considering changing the structure so that all infantry units fall into one MOS. In that scenario, the MOS “Infantryman” would be anything that typically falls under the 03xx MOS section. Whether you were previously an anti-tank gunner, basic infantryman, machine gunner, or mortarman you will now be just an “Infantry Marine.”

This change will be beneficial because if everyone is trained on every system, a unit won’t be deprived of a crucial MOS in the event of casualties at war. The downside to this change, though, is that it may reduce specialization. I’m sure the Marine Corps has thought through this deeply and will still have Marines who specialize in specific weapons systems.

 

Three Female Marines Graduate The School Of Infantry-East

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Treated Like Adults

The Marine Corps Times article says that the Marine Corps has decided to treat the new Marines like adults rather than idiot recruits or newbies. For the Marine Corps, this is an absolutely shocking development.

Chief Warrant Officer A.J. Pasciuti, the battalion gunner for Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, said to the Marine Corps Times regarding the new training process:

“Marines are taught to ask why. Not why as in questioning, but why as in seeking information: ‘What reason am I doing this?’ O.K., then I can have context and work toward it.”

If you’ve spent time in the Marines, your head might’ve just been blown straight off your shoulders by that last statement. I can’t say I ever saw that statement coming from a Marine Corps instructor of any school or specialty, especially one still loosely associated with boot camp.

But I hope this becomes the norm.

Marines Chuck Hagel 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force
Camp Lejeune, NC Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel takes questions from U.S. Marines assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Hurt/DoD)

I’ve long argued with other military personnel that it makes no sense for leaders to demean their Marines just because they are new, inquisitive, or strong-willed. The latter two qualities are what make strong humans and thus, strong Marines. The Marine Corps should desire to foster appropriate inquisitiveness. I’m not saying that young Marines shouldn’t adhere to authority or that they should feel entitled, I just believe that treating Marines like humans rather than third-world dogs is probably, in the long run, a more effective strategy for troop morale, unit cohesion, and battlefield success. I’d rather storm a hill for someone I respect and who respects me than for someone who treats me like an expendable asset. Maybe that’s just me, but I doubt it.

Sgt. Harvey Evans, an 0352 anti-tank missile man, who is providing support to Alpha Company, said to the Marine Corps Times about the update, “I’ve always believed that if you expect somebody to perform, they will. They’ll be hungry to perform.” I agree.

In addition to fostering more of a learning environment in training, Colonel Walker Koury, commanding officer for Infantry Training Battalion – West, banned the instructors from demeaning the new Marines. This, in turn, helped change the SOI from just Phase 4 of boot camp into an actual military training course “designed to train future platoon sergeants and squad leaders.”

 

Swimming in Combat

A final piece of the puzzle for the updated Infantry Training Battalion course is that leaders have now implemented more rigorous swim competency training into the curriculum. Historically, Marines have been able to “pass” a swim qualification if they can swim 25 yards in camouflage utilities, jump off a platform in full uniform and not drown, and tread water for five minutes (at least, if my memory serves me right). However, we’ve seen that being able to swim 25 yards in a pool wearing only cammies is very different than being able to swim 300 yards in the ocean wearing a full uniform, 70-pound pack, and carrying one or more weapons. That difference between training and reality has cost many Marines their lives before they had even gotten the chance to fire a round or even be fired upon.

Marines squad swim exercise
A U.S. Marine with Alpha Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, holds onto his pack while conducting a 300-meter squad swim as part of the capstone exercise for the Infantry Marine Course on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, April 28, 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Laboy/USMC)

The updated SOI training now includes significantly more practice in the water, tasking Marines with swimming hundreds of meters with full gear, and getting them to the mindset where they feel comfortable should they need to insert into a location via water (or survive in the water following a helicopter crash). In addition to all of the Marines who have died attempting to make landfall during battle, we’ve also lost far too many Marines due to water accidents following a helicopter crash. One such incident happened in 2017 when a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey (a hybrid helicopter/airplane) went down during a training mission off the coast of Australia; 23 of the 26 Marines aboard that Osprey were rescued. Three Marines perished.

MV-22 Osprey Australia missing Marines
The search effort for the three Marines who were missing after their MV-22 Osprey crashed into the sea off Australia’s east coast Saturday, August 5, 2017. (Reuters)

Training scars and other incidents are typically the prefaces to policy updates. It is unfortunate that a disaster is what it typically takes to promote change, but it would be more unfortunate for a disaster to change nothing.

Colonel Koury said of the new water training, “They’re not just surviving in the water; they’re thriving. Any of these Marines, you could throw them off a boat and they’d be all right.”

Trouble at the Units?

One potential downside, at least in the early years of this change, could be that when the newly trained Marines arrive at their units more experienced Marines (either a salty LCpl or an actual NCO) may resent them for having so much knowledge from the start.

I’ve known some six-year lance corporals who felt like they ran the Marine Corps. They would even try to boss around or talk back to sergeants (usually to a bad outcome), so the idea that these salty bums will lay off the newbies may be a pipe dream. With such a vast new training pipeline, it is possible that these new Marines will arrive at their units with better training and knowledge than the people there now. There is also the chance that they’ll be more inquisitive towards their leaders, which historically speaking has been a great way to anger your bosses. Either way, the Marine Corps is moving forward, like it or not. This is a change I can actually stand squarely behind.

Overall, unlike most of the new decisions, the U.S. military seems to be making due to political correctness (or just plain politics), I like this new training update. I don’t see any negative in treating Marines like the adults they are. They are old enough to sacrifice their life for their country (like 20-year-old LCpl Jared Schmitz did on August 26, 2021, in Afghanistan) so they should be treated with a similar amount of respect. The new Marines just have to ensure that they don’t take the respect given to them by their superiors for granted or it could quickly vanish. Overall, well played Marine Corps.

 

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