Following an emotionally charged and very public national debate, President Barack Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) on 22 December 2010.1 The President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now required to certify to Congress that implementing the repeal will not adversely affect the readiness or effectiveness of the American military force. Sixty days from that certification the policy that forbids homosexuals from serving openly in the Armed Forces will cease to exist.2 During this interim period, estimated to run through early May 2011,3 the Department of Defense will finalize new policies and regulations, develop training materials, and then provide relevant training to the more than 2,000,000 military members. With certification all but certain, the time for debate and speculation is over. It is now time to prepare to execute. While there is much angst in the Marine Corps regarding the DADT repeal (DADTR), leaders at every level can draw some comfort from one fact: we have already done this—sort of.
Although the assimilation of openly homosexual servicemembers has not been previously undertaken, the Marine Corps has integrated both racial and gender minority populations into its ranks in the past. Opha Mae Johnson, the first female Marine, enlisted in August 1918. Then in 1948, as part of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, Congress permanently integrated women into the Marine Corps.4 In June 1942, Howard Perry became the first African-American to enlist in the Marine Corps. Six years later President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 directing the racial integration of the military.5 The decades since the implementation of these landmark actions have witnessed inspired sacrifice and resiliency of Marines that resulted in significant advancements pertaining to the dignified and equitable treatment of minorities6 in the Marine Corps. Although there is still progress to be made, lessons learned thus far during the integration of minorities into the Marine Corps should be used as a model for the pending assimilation of openly homosexual Marines. This article will discuss two unintended consequences associated with the maturation of minority rights and resources, followed by a recommendation on how the pending DADTR training can be used to address these consequences. First this article will discuss the enduring lessons learned and then will identify some of the corrective measures that emerged as a result.
Hard-Earned Lessons Learned
Three enduring lessons related to the advocacy of minority rights have emerged over the preceding decades. The first is that the fight against prejudice is continuous and cannot let up. The second is that leadership at every level plays a key role in this fight. The third is that every Marine and his actions and contributions matter. Although identifying these lessons may be easy, the personal sacrifice and unyielding courage it took to produce them was anything but that.
Marines enter the Corps from all walks of life, each having been affected uniquely by societal, cultural, and natural influences during their upbringing. During entry-level training, the Marine Corps begins the process of undoing the “isms” that exist in most new Marines. Recognizing that reversing prejudices that took a lifetime to learn doesn’t happen overnight, this educational process continues throughout a Marine’s career. Utilizing formal and informal methods, all levels of Marine leadership play a role.
From the Commandant to the fire team leader, dedicated and informed leadership is essential to the successful implementation of an effective Corps-wide equal opportunity program. Ultimately, the goal is to have a force culture that is collectively and individually committed to the fair, equal, and dignified treatment of all fellow Marines, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity—and now, sexual orientation. The Marine Corps has correctly and necessarily invested significant fiscal and personnel resources dedicated to the development of comprehensive policies and programs in the pursuit of this end state.
Rules, Tools, and Resources
The Marine Corps has diligently worked to address three primary concerns specifically related to minority populations: sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual/racial/religious discrimination. These efforts have sought to prevent such discriminatory actions from taking place, to appropriately deal with incidents when they do occur, and to hold proven offenders accountable for their actions. The evolution of these “rules, tools, and resources” has resulted in a robust and responsive approach to minority matters.
The bedrock upon which these programs have been built includes public laws, national and military policies, and Service-specific orders implemented in order to protect the rights of all Marines. To achieve the goals laid out in these source documents, tools and resources have been made available to commanders, advisors, junior leaders, and individual Marines. Some examples of these include command climate surveys, annual training sessions, formal and informal resolution procedures, and subject matter expertise education.
For the unfortunate situations where prevention has failed, there are victim’s resources in place, as well. Some of these include the chain of command, sexual assault response coordinator/unit victim advocate programs, equal opportunity complaint procedures, request mast, and the inspector general’s office. Finally, several tools are in place to hold those guilty of misconduct accountable. Examples include the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Navy Regulations Manual, and the performance evaluation system. As these critically essential measures evolved, two detrimental and unintended consequences also emerged: false empowerment and reluctant leadership.
False Empowerment Exists and Persists
There have been numerous positive results from the well-intentioned mandate to ensure that minorities are able to serve in an environment free from abuse and discrimination. A counterproductive consequence also resulted, however. It is the gradual emergence, both real and perceived, of a falsely empowered minority population. For the purposes of this article, false empowerment is defined as the exercise of perceived authority or positional advantage that exceeds military rank and authority, real or delegated. Its origins can be traced to the at times overly aggressive implementation of newly established programs. While the emergence of false empowerment probably could not have been avoided, it should not be a surprise to anyone that it actually happened.
The seeds of false empowerment are sown when an organization selects a segment of its population to draw attention to. Those seeds take root when the organization repeatedly communicates to all hands how special that population is (their special rights, programs, resources, venues to address their concerns, etc.) and how any allegations of misconduct toward that population will be dealt with swiftly. The seed then flowers when members of that population sense that others have become overly cautious or sensitive in dealing with members of their group. The potential damage occurs when this circumstance is used, consciously or subconsciously, for personal advantage. While this phenomenon has had a deleterious impact, it is critical to understand that false empowerment, where it does exist, is less the fault of the minority population than it is of its leadership.
During a recent discussion with a group of Marines, a senior enlisted female Marine asked a telling question, “Do you know why female Marines get away with so much?” After a few moments of silence, she answered, “Because male Marines let them.” Her point was that because so many male Marines at every grade are either ignorant of or unwilling to enforce gender-specific regulations, female Marines have often encountered a resultant leadership gap. This circumstance is not exclusive to female Marines, however. It applies to other minority populations as well. Also, the above anecdote is not meant to be pejorative to women, nor is it meant to imply that all minority Marines intentionally manipulate “the system”—not at all. Admittedly, with human nature being what it is, there are some who have intentionally exploited this gap for gain. Many more, however, have stepped into this gap and exerted positive leadership for the benefit of their unit and the institution as a whole. It is precisely these Marines who deserve to have that gap filled, to have reluctant leadership eliminated. To better understand where reluctant leadership comes from, consider the following scenario.
Start with a Marine leader in his formative years. The rank, gender, or racial/ethnic heritage of this Marine is irrelevant. Next, expose this Marine to negative experiences regarding the manner with which minority issues are dealt. Experiences they have witnessed or dealt with, or experiences of others they have heard about second or third hand, contribute to the formation of a negative perception. Almost every Marine has either heard a story or had an experience along these lines: “I don’t want to deal with him. He will play the (insert selected minority phrase) card, and it’s not worth the time or hassle.” “Did you hear what happened to Lt Jones? He tried to run Smith on weight control and was accused of harassment/discrimination, and now there is this big investigation.” Exposure to these types of situations can potentially make a leader hesitant to engage marginal performers or correct infractions for fear of becoming involved in a bigger leadership problem than they intended to deal with. This is only one aspect that goes into making a reluctant leader. Another is laziness.
The requirement to learn and enforce regulations that apply to all Marines is an area where many leaders are deficient. Grooming standards, height and weight standards, uniform standards, billeting requirements, field sanitation requirements—these are only some examples that have applicability across race and gender lines. Many leaders can’t be bothered to learn them. This ignorance then often leads to reticence in enforcing standards, making sensitive decisions, or engaging in delicate leadership situations for fear of being embarrassed by their lack of required knowledge. This often results in leaders subconsciously compensating for their ignorance somehow, such as by being less engaged with minority Marines or by being overly “nice.” Whether it is fear, based on negative perceptions, or ignorance borne of laziness, the reluctant leader not only harms the institution, but also robs Marines of the leadership they deserve.
The Cost of Reluctant Leadership
Reluctant leadership has yielded three significant leadership challenges. First, there is a perception of special treatment, not just equal treatment, of minorities. Second, a level of resentment of this special treatment exists. Finally, and worst of all, is the very real potential that Marines in need of assistance may not seek the help they need.
While the Marine Corps has largely been successful in establishing an environment that promotes fair and equal treatment of all minorities, it has unintentionally created the perception of preferential treatment of minorities along with it. However well intentioned, the proliferation of special programs, awards, public venues, and methods of redress has created a perception that minority populations warrant special or favorable treatment that exceeds the “fair and equal” mandate. This perception has come with consequences.
One consequence is the reality that many Marines, justified or not, resent the special treatment and recognition resulting from these efforts. This perception also has the potential to undermine the legitimate accomplish-
ments of minorities in the Corps—the “so-and-so got such-and-such only because he is (fill in the minority identifier)” syndrome. Additionally, the integrity of the chain of command in some units may be put at risk. Numerous methods exist that allow a Marine to bypass small unit leadership to air grievances. Special advisory committees, minority-specific “town hall” sessions, or an overzealous open door policy are some examples. If not properly utilized, these methods have the potential to usurp the authority of subordinate leaders in a given unit, ultimately doing more harm than good. As previously mentioned, the worst consequence is the possibility that someone in need of help may not seek it. This reluctance may stem from not wanting to be known as “that” person who is creating trouble or tension, or because he does not want to be seen as having benefited from the situation he might be attempting to correct. None of these consequences bode well for any Marine, minority or otherwise. There are indications that the root causes of these potential consequences are improving, however.
Through anecdotal observations and discussions, it appears that the pervasiveness of false empowerment and the associated reluctant leadership is on the decline. DADTR and the introduction of a new minority population in the Marine Corps, however, could result in the resurgence of both if not handled effectively.
DADTR implementation will be preceded by a series of mandatory training events to promulgate associated policies and rule sets. The Marine Corps should capitalize on this opportunity to reset the baseline as it relates to leadership expectations regarding all minorities, not just homosexuals. It is in this context that the following recommendations are offered:
- Promulgate new guidance and rules for DADTR implementation as part of an overall refresher of minority programs and policies. Do not roll out training that spotlights just homosexuals. This would draw potentially negative attention to this one minority population.
- Wherever possible, present training sessions to rank-based groups—the smaller the group, the better. Optimally it should be presented by peers with advice, support, and supervision from duty experts. Large gatherings at the base theater might be the most efficient but would be the least effective venue for this training.
- Emphasize that although there will be certain specific requirements associated with DADTR, the Marine Corps will be utilizing the rules, tools, and resources already in place. Also, ensure that the rights, responsibilities, and limitations of all Marines as they relate to minority policies are clearly presented and emphasized. This will tamp down the stigma or “special status” label for the new minority group.
- Make this a leadership challenge. Leaders at every level must fully understand the criticality of their role. The key take away from this training must be boldly underscored: it is of vital importance that all leaders demonstrate unwavering moral courage and be committed to the essential core mission of providing engaged, energetic, and unbiased leadership to all Marines. The challenging transition that lies ahead requires no less.
It has been over 50 years since the permanent integration of women into the Marine Corps, and we are still wrestling with gender-related issues. Some are evolutionary, such as the continuing effort to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of female Marines in the workplace. Others are revolutionary, such as the potential assignment of women to ground combat units. If this history is an accurate yardstick, the process of integrating openly homosexual Marines into the Corps will certainly experience its share of significant challenges as well. As the Marine Corps shoots its azimuth to navigate DADTR, it should capitalize on this opportunity to seal the fading fractures created by false empowerment and reluctant leadership. In so doing, it will prevent their reemergence in a new minority population. Failure to do so will not only undermine good order and discipline but will also detract from the sacrifices, advancements, and notable contributions our minority Marines have made to the Corps. And that would be an injustice.
1. CNN Wire Staff, “Obama signs repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” cnn.com, 22 December 2010, available at http://articles.cnn.
repeal_1_repeal-openly-gay-men-president-barack-obama?_s=PM:POLITICS, accessed 21 January 2011.
2. Pellerin, Cheryl, “Gates Outlines ‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal Process,” American Forces Press Service, 7 January 2011, available at http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=62370, accessed 7 January 2011.
3. Fishel, Justin, “Pentagon Source: Three Months Until Gays Can Serve Openly,” foxnews.com, 28 January 2011, available at http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/01/28/pentagon-source-months-gays-s..., accessed 28 January 2011.
4. Bellafaire, Judith, “America’s Military Women: The Journey Continues,” Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc., available at http://www.womensmemorial.org/
Education/WHM982.html#8, accessed 9 January 2011.
5. U.S. National Archives, “Document for June 1st,” available at http://www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/index.html?dod-date=601, accessed 9 January 2011.
6. For the purposes of this article the terms “minorities” or “minority populations” are inclusive of female, racial, ethnic, religious and, now, homosexual groups.