Leatherneck contributing editor Arthur P. Brill Jr. attended Sergeant Major Micheal P. Barrett’s stirring address to Staff Noncommissioned Officer (SNCO) Academy students at the Marine Corps University (MCU), Quantico, Va., earlier this year. SgtMaj Barrett, the 17th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps (SMMC), was the featured speaker in the Sergeant Walter K. Singleton Distinguished Lecture Series. Sgt Singleton was killed in action in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor. The annual lecture broadens the leadership perspective of the Corps’ enlisted leaders. The past two speakers were former Marine Commandants, General James T. Conway and Gen Charles C. Krulak.
Leatherneck: Your audience included Sergeant Singleton’s family, MCU brass and enlisted leaders from sergeant to sergeants major. You seemed inspired up there.
SgtMaj Barrett: As the national anthem ended, I looked over the sea of uniforms and thought, “I wish everyone could see what I see.” Those that wear the uniform today could have done anything they wanted in their life, but they chose our cloth, they swore all their means, their talents, their lives to an idea, to a flag, to free people who live in a free society, who get to come and go as they please. We are an all-volunteer force for the first time in history, and we’ve never been at war this long. The majority of the audience joined after we were at war—during a time of challenge. That’s the lens I was looking through. I was inspired. It was humbling.
Leatherneck: Those Marines were focused on your every word. Can you sum up your feelings about being the 17th SMMC?
SgtMaj Barrett: I’m privileged to serve in this capacity. I get to serve Marines. They in turn support our mission—meeting the National objective.
Leatherneck: What is the state of the Marine Corps today and how is the Commandant dealing with it?
SgtMaj Barrett: We are forward deployed, forward engaged, shaping, training, deterring aggression and responding to every crisis, contingency or conflict around the globe. The Commandant is shepherding us through these tumultuous times. He is laser focused on keeping us balanced across the pillars of institutional readiness: high-quality people, unit readiness, equipment modernization, infrastructure sustainment and providing combatant commanders with capability and capacity.
Leatherneck: Give us some examples.
SgtMaj Barrett: General Amos is focused on recruiting, retaining, mentoring and promoting high-quality people, to ridding our Corps of sexual assaults, to command climate, to full-spectrum battle equipment, to the future of ground-combat tactical vehicle strategy, to the Joint Strike Fighter and modernizing all our air platforms to energy-efficient initiatives, to pivoting to the Pacific and the retrograde of our equipment out of Afghanistan. He’s literally juggling 79 crystal chandeliers and keeping them all up.
Leatherneck: How are Marines doing in Afghanistan?
SgtMaj Barrett: They are fighting an absolutely perfect counterinsurgency campaign. Since 2009, we’ve generated forces, we’ve trained the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces], and in doing so, we’ve improved security; and when you have security, you create stability; and where there is stability, the governance is able to grow; and as it does, the economy starts to prosper—if there are competent forces, security, stability, governance and economy, the good people of Afghanistan will have confidence. When General Amos and I travel to Afghanistan, every few months, we see the progress: militarily, economically, socially, infrastructure, justice and rule of law, health care and education. Our Marines continue the transitioning of districts and giving the lead to the Afghan National Security Forces.
Leatherneck: How good are the Afghan fighting forces?
SgtMaj Barrett: The ANSF are good. The Afghan units will never be the U.S. Marine Corps, but I’ve watched them closely. When I was the Regional Command Southwest Sergeant Major, I observed their improvements every time I went on a partnered patrol. The Afghan forces have taken over the lead to secure their own country. I feel good about it.
Leatherneck: You mentioned the post-Afghanistan pivot for Marines—back to the Pacific area. How is that coming?
SgtMaj Barrett: We’ve already started. Our amphibious roots are in the Pacific. When this article is published, three battalions will have posted their flags on Okinawa under the Unit Deployment Program, just like the old days. We’ve restarted the Darwin, Australia, rotation and the 31st MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] is doing bilateral training and partnering with all of our friends in that region.
Leatherneck: Are you pleased with the role the Marine Reserve is playing today?
SgtMaj Barrett: The Marine Corps is a true total force. One hundred percent of our Reserve component has activated and deployed during this long war. Right now, 4,300 Reserve Marines are either activated or are on active duty today. Long gone are the days of “weekend warriors.” Our Reserve-component Marines are operational, and they’ve been doing an absolutely wonderful job. We can’t do it without them, and we wouldn’t want to try. They are the essential shock absorber for the active component in an uncertain global environment.
Leatherneck: We’re told that Marine units are in high demand around the globe and have seldom been busier.
SgtMaj Barrett: As we speak, almost 16,000 Marines are forward deployed in harm’s way, including the 7,000 Marines fighting in Afghanistan. We are ready to execute a number of vital missions, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, anti-piracy operations, tactical recovery of downed American aviators and noncombatant evacuations to name a few.
In addition to the 31st MEU sailing the Pacific, the 26th MEU is in the Central Command’s area of operations. The 13th MEU is finishing their work ups. Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response forces are supporting the AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command] commander. Last year, we did hundreds of regional and theater security cooperation missions in support of dozens of countries. We are taking on multiple challenges in an ever-increasing and complex world.
Leatherneck: Despite all the good things Marines are doing for the nation, you said that today’s Corps isn’t perfect.
SgtMaj Barrett: We’re not perfect. We have allowed some insurgents to slip inside our perimeter—societal ills in the form of drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, criminal mischief, sexual misconduct, hazing and suicide.
Leatherneck: What can Marines do about these societal ills?
SgtMaj Barrett: We simply do not have time for this kind of bullshit. Marines are really good at finding the enemy, fixing them in place and killing them. No one is better at it than us! I need every Marine to put a boot in the neck of those who choose to make poor choices!
Leatherneck: Who is going to do that?
SgtMaj Barrett: Our Marine NCOs and Staff NCOs can make an impact. Our active-duty enlisted Marines comprise 89 percent of the Marine Corps. Corporals are responsible for and to 66 percent of the enlisted force, sergeants are responsible for and to 82 percent, staff sergeants are responsible for and to 92 percent, and our gunnery sergeants, 97 percent. These enlisted leaders have been promoted many times. Our leadership needs to enforce their promotion warrants. The Commandant has given them the authority to give and receive more responsibility. The biggest threat is suffocating NCO/Staff NCO leadership.
Leatherneck: How do they get started?
SgtMaj Barrett: Every Marine NCO and Staff NCO should immediately make a self-assessment and a team assessment on a number of key points. They need to clear their minds and be honest with themselves and about every single Marine they serve—horizontally and vertically.
Leatherneck: What do they assess first?
SgtMaj Barrett: I’ve heard for 33 years that NCOs are the backbone of the Marine Corps. Corporals and sergeants are the vital link between the commander and that unit’s junior enlisted Marines. Do their commanders and Staff NCOs let them do what the promotion warrant says, and if so, do they enforce it?
Leatherneck: What if these enlisted leaders are not allowed to do their jobs?
SgtMaj Barrett: Then these Marines should get on top of someone’s desk and let him or her know.
Leatherneck: What pledge do Marine NCOs and Staff NCOs make when they raise their right hands and accept a promotion?
SgtMaj Barrett: Our NCOs/Staff NCOs appointment letter [promotion warrant] is defined. It gives the bearer “the authority to give and receive more responsibility.”
• Special trust—unquestioning belief in your integrity, strength and abilities.
• Confidence—self-reliance, assurance
• Fidelity—strict observance of or faithfulness to promise.
• Abilities—power or capacity to act.
• Diligence—constant in effort to accomplish.
• I do strictly charge/direct—to carry out the organizing, energizing and supervision, to dominate and determine the course, to train and lead, having responsibility for.
Service as a NCO/Staff NCO is a privilege. A privilege founded on integrity that brings with it great responsibility. This appointment along with their oath is a promise to deliver—to give all their means, talents and life.
Leatherneck: How does all of this pertain to the insurgents that have wormed their way into Marine Corps life?
SgtMaj Barrett: It’s simple. When you accepted a promotion, you vowed to do all the things I just defined. Now do! That new stripe or rocker has been placed on your collar/sleeve to solve problems, not contribute to them.
Leatherneck: Ideally, what would you like to see happen?
SgtMaj Barrett: I want to extricate these societal ills by getting so far to the left that these things won’t pop up anymore. It starts with enforcing the promotion warrant—and if they can’t fulfill their duties, move them out of the way and give the responsibilities to someone who can.
Leatherneck: What’s the next step in the assessment?
SgtMaj Barrett: Do they and their Marines understand the indicators of effective leadership—proficiency, discipline, esprit de corps, morale and motivation? In determining how well their unit is doing, these indicators help to point out deficiencies.
Leatherneck: How long does it take for you to spot discipline deficiencies when you visit a Marine unit?
SgtMaj Barrett: If you know where to look you can get a feel for command climate in quick time. You can tell how good a unit is just by walking around the motor pool, the armory, the barracks and the command post. I look at how Marines carry themselves, salute, give the greeting of the day, clean their weapons, park their vehicles and police the area. A battalion’s legal report also reveals much about discipline and morale, as does the training report, binnacle report, readiness report, and career planner report.
Leatherneck: What advice can you give to enlisted leaders who find deficiencies in their units?
SgtMaj Barrett: Deficiencies are caused by one of three reasons: a knowledge, attitude or skill deficiency. First, figure out which one it is. Then, get at it.
Leatherneck: Are morale issues easy to spot?
SgtMaj Barrett: Generally, yes. I spent time with a company that won every Marine of the Quarter and NCO of the Quarter award for a year. It just so happens that the company commander was a Leftwich Award recipient. I asked a corporal if he was one of the award recipients. His response blew me away, and it told me everything about the unit that I need to know. He said, “No, I wasn’t one of the most valuable players, but I was still on the championship team.” That was inspiring!
Leatherneck: It seems these leadership indicators will help to assess the team. What about assessing an individual’s character?
SgtMaj Barrett: Every NCO and Staff NCO must ask if they and the members of their team possess and demonstrate enduring trust qualities: competent, committed, consistently dependable, of the right character, and team-oriented. Do they finish everything they start with excellence? Are they committed to the team’s success and its mission, everything they do brings the team together? Is their integrity unquestioned? Finally, can they be depended on every time, even at the most inconvenient time?
Leatherneck: What do you mean?
SgtMaj Barrett: It’s early Sunday morning about 0200. A married staff sergeant gets a call from Lance Corporal Barrett.He needs a ride back to the barracks from a club out in town. The Marine can’t drive and has no money for a cab. How does that staff sergeant handle the call, and does he or she follow through in a professional manner? Do they ask if he’s OK? Is he in a safe area? Does he say, “I’m on the way, don’t move!” Or do they get bent out of shape and make the trip miserable? If you choose the latter, you’ve lost them forever
Leatherneck: Young Marines watch their leaders closely, don’t they?
SgtMaj Barrett: Marine leaders must always watch what they do and say. You never know who’s watching or listening. I promise you, you’re being watched and they are listening to everything you say. Young Marines pick up everything. Conduct factors are another part of the assessment. Do you always ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say or do moral, ethical, safe, professional and just?” If you don’t have to pause or hesitate, it’s OK. If you do pause, it’s probably wrong. Don’t do it, and don’t let anyone else do it.
Leatherneck: In your fifth and final assessment you ask the question, “Is my organization optimally combat ready?” How does it apply to the varied units in a Marine air-ground task force?
SgtMaj Barrett: Are you physically fit, cognitively fit, morally fit? Do you process the knowledge and skills required to do your job? Are you personally fit? Is your family fit? Don’t let the word “combat” fool you. It means the same thing in the wing, the logistics group, the ground-combat units, the supporting establishment, active or Reserve. At Camp Leatherneck [in Afghanistan], I saw a crew chief turning a wrench on top of his helicopter in 103-degree heat, after he was shot through the arm three days prior … “optimally combat ready.”
Leatherneck: What about assessing a Marine’s inner self?
SgtMaj Barrett: Enlisted leaders should continually assess if they and their Marines are personally fit. Married Marines must examine their family’s fitness in the realm of its financial, emotional, social and spiritual well-being. When I say spiritual, I’m referring to what’s in their hearts, not necessarily religion. A leader should always seek the moral high ground. Those who demand honesty—will earn loyalty. Anyone who demands your loyalty—give them your integrity. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing.
Leatherneck: I take it that the assessment process never ends for NCOs and Staff NCOs?
SgtMaj Barrett: We must be consistently taking and making assessments. We must always be growing and forging our team. Train hard at every rank. If you can’t make a difference or are tired of trying, then GET OUT OF THE WAY!
Leatherneck: What do you mean when you tell your Marine enlisted leaders to be “manure”?
SgtMaj Barrett: What happens when you take manure, spread it, cultivate the ground and water the earth? Things grow. I want our enlisted leaders to be learned professionals and spread themselves. They should cultivate and water those young Marines, then sit back and watch goodness grow.
Leatherneck: Can you pass on a personal way of life to your fellow Marines?
SgtMaj Barrett: I constantly make assessments and never quit. My personal philosophy is head down, ass up and drive forward—like making a tackle in rugby. That’s how I do business.
Editor’s note: Retired Marine LtCol Arthur P. Brill Jr. commanded a rifle company in Vietnam and later was the Corps’ press spokesman. He also was the media spokesman in key positions for the Carter and Reagan administrations.