by Mai David R. Dixon & 1stLt Matt Ford

“She will make a great Huey pilot in the Fleet.” An encouraging comment like this on a performance evaluation would certainly bode well for the career of a young aviator completing helicopter training. Unless, of course, that Marine happens to be a male in the AH-1W Cobra syllabus. While comical, this true example ofa a I comment (from an obviously aloof reporting senior) illustrates a painful fact that many of- us have experienced firsthand-young Marine officers often author maladroit fitness reports (FITREPs).

This anecdote also highlights one of the numerous issues discussed during the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s Innovation Symposium which convened in Quantico from 23 to 24 February 2016. The symposium assembled disruptive thinkers from across the DOD in order to address the myriad uncertainties and challenges that create barriers to innovation and to propose solutions in order to develop a learning organization that is ready to meet future warfighting challenges.1 This is a bold mission statement indeed, and in order to succeed as a military organization, it is paramount that we recognize, promote, and retain the most talented and fully-qualified SNCOs.

However, accurately assessing the quality of a SNCO is a difficult task for a promotion board, which relies almost exclusively on the FITREPs from the SNCOs reporting seniors and reviewing officers-many of whom have little or no experience writing performance evaluations. Frankly put, most lieutenants are unsatisfactory FITREP writers. Almost everyone reading this article has either once been a novice lieutenant or had one evaluate you at some point. How many sergeants and SNCOs have had their otherwise exemplary careers damaged or possibly ruined by a wellintentioned but overzealous companygrade officer whose limited knowledge of the Performance Evaluation System (PES) caused him to write an inaccurate appraisal? This problem has existed for decades yet there has been little done to address how we train lieutenants to write FITREPS. This article proposes a solution that costs zero dollars, adds zero time to the current periods of instruction for officers, and can be implemented within a month.

Years ago, students at TBS wrote peer evaluations on each other that were more affectionately known as “spear evals.” Alter an assigned training periods (usually every two weeks), the student squad leaders would rank his squad, each student platoon commander would evaluate the squad leaders, and so on. The ranking criterion was extremely subjective and shrouded in the personal biases of the student evaluator. The delivery method for these spear evals was even more obscure and awkward. At the end of the six month TBS syllabus, students would tape an empty manila envelope to their barracks door, and the lieutenants would surreptitiously slip their opinions into each other’s packets. You were never really sure who said what- you just woke up in the morning with a bunch of index cards where your platoon mates anonymously vented about how great or terrible they thought you were based on whatever grading standards each person deemed most important.

Needless to say, that was an absurd system that made it extremely difficult to obtain accurate feedback. Even worse, spear evals did nothing to teach lieutenants about how the PES actually works in the Marine Corps. The process today at TBS has evolved somewhat-the mouse and keyboard have usurped the notecard and envelope-and now the lieutenants use the five TBS “horizontal themes” to rank themselves against each other. These themes are:

1. A man or woman of exemplary character.

2. Devoted to leading Marines 24/7.

3. Able to decide, communicate, and act in the fog of war.

4. A warfighter who embraces the Corps’ warrior ethos.

5. Mentally strong and physically tough.

These themes are solid, and they may be adequate for lieutenant students to critique each other; however, this is not how we actually conduct evaluations in the Marine Corps. In other words, we are not training like we fight.

The solution is simple. TBS students should write training FITREPS on each other in order to intimately learn the Marine Corps PES, master brief sheet, and promotion process. Logically, fireteam leaders would RS (reporting senior) their fireteam, and the squad leader would RO (reviewing officer) fireteam members. Squad leaders would RS their fireteam leaders, and the student platoon commander would RO the fireteam leaders, and so on and so on.

By the end of the six-month syllabus, each student will develop a comprehensive RS/RO profile in addition to personally receiving dozens of training FITREPS-all of this would be reflected on the student’s training master brief sheet. After TBS graduation, these training FITREPS would be expunged from the system by the FITREP Division at HQMC.

If HQMC is unable or unwilling to cooperate by eliminating these training FITREPS, a pragmatic solution is for TBS to develop a program in Microsoft Excel that identically mimics the FITREP grading scale, RS/RO profile formulas, and master brief sheet profiles. We don’t need to hire computer engineers or bid out contracts to software companies in Silicon Valley. There are lieutenants at TBS right now who could easily write these formulas in Microsoft Excel. In order to get this program quickly online we could utilize the free market economic principle of competition. If the Commanding Officer, TBS, offered a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal and a “96” to the student team who designed the most accurate model based on our FITREPS and master brief sheets, it would be done in less than one month. More importantly, the TBS lieutenant community would feel ownership of the process. If this does not work for some reason, then we could direct some of our bright captains and majors studying in the computer science or manpower systems analysis curriculum at the Naval Postgraduate School to design this Excel program. The point is that we have the brainpower right now within the Marine Corps to get this up and running soon.

Training FITREPS will familiarize lieutenants with the arcane technicalities of the PES grading criteria and RS & RO rankings. Lieutenants would furthermore learn the even more befuddling intricacies of Master Brief Sheets (such as the “at processing” and “cumulative” FITREP averages, and the “upper, middle, lower”/”above, with, below” RS and RO profile scores). The profiles that students create on each other can then be used as a training aid during the promotion block to help young officers understand how their performance evaluations influence the promotion system.

Each lieutenant would surely get the uncomfortable opportunity to receive a few unjust or inaccurate training FITREPs. TBS lieutenants would then understand what it feels like to get rooked on a FITREP and how those few inaccurate FITREPS can inflict longterm carnage on their master brief sheet. These unsettling moments will emotionally seal the learning objectives into the lieutenant’s brains, thus making it less likely that they will give erroneous or half-hearted evaluations to their sergeants and SNCOs in the future. Moreover, by using training FITREPS and master brief sheets, the staff platoon commanders at TBS will have much more accurate means of evaluating their students’ leadership potential. Everyone wins.

TBS has already apportioned time in their syllabus for peer evaluations. The same amount of time will be spent evaluating, just using training FITREPs instead of the five horizontal themes. The bottom line is that the intent of this article can be met with zero money spent by the Marine Corps and zero time added to the TBS syllabus.

A very small percentage of lieutenants will actually fire their weapon in combat or call in an airstrike via a nineline, but every single officer will write FITREPS on sergeants and SNCOs. Yet, TBS devotes only a few classes to teaching this vital skill. FITREPS are highly technical and writing them can become an emotionally charged ordeal. Athletes can’t learn how to play football or basketball in a classroom, and lieutenants can’t become astute evaluators without feeling the pain over many repetitions.

Historically, lieutenants write clumsy FITREPs and do not understand the impact that a few inaccurate evaluations can have on a SNCO’s career and morale. This injustice to our enlisted Marines demands bold innovation and a better way of doing business. Change of any sort is typically unpopular, especially for a monolithic organization that highly values uniformity (such as the military). LtGen Michael Dana implored the Warfighting Lab Symposium to, “Be innovative despite the machine.”2 MCDP 1, Warfighting, also reminds us that,

Since war is at base a human enterprise, effective personnel management is important to success. This is especially true for a doctrine of maneuver warfare, which places a premium on individual judgment and action. We should recognize that all Marines of a given grade and occupational specialty are not interchangeable and should assign people to billets based on specific ability and temperament.^

We will never meet the intent of MCDP 1 unless we recognize, promote, and retain the most talented and fully qualified SNCOs-there are few things more important in our Corps. We can accomplish this only if company grade officers adeptly utilize the PES. In order to train like we fight, TBS should replace their five horizontal themed peer evaluations with a system that teaches about actual FITREPS, master brief sheets, and the promotion board process.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MARADMIN 041/16, Marine Corps Warfigbting Lab Force Development 25: Designing The Future Force (Innovation Symposium), (Washington, DC: 22 January 2016).

2. Opening Comments by LtGen Michael Dana, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab Force Development 25: Designing the Future Force (Innovation Symposium), (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 23 February 2016.)

3. Headquarters Marine Corps, MCDP 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1997), 64.