Creative USMC leadership, 90s style

Uncle Walkie
Mar 30, 2023 11:17 AM PDT
6 minute read
usmc leadership

Retired U.S. Marine Lt. Col. John Carretti, center, instructs training classes during Operation Desert Storm. (Courtesy asset)


The Marine Corps in the 1990s was an interesting time. It was Post-Cold War and Pre-9/11. Careerists of the time…

The Marine Corps in the 1990s was an interesting time. It was Post-Cold War and Pre-9/11. Careerists of the time had been shaped by events involving conflict that were relatively short in nature such as Beirut, Grenada and Panama in the 1980s, then Somalia and Desert Storm in the early 1990s. When Marines of this generation were young, they were greatly influenced by senior USMC leadership still in uniform who fought in Vietnam. These factors collided to produce NCOs who were aggressive and engaged in corrective actions that would likely be considered hazing by today’s standards.

The 5 incidents described below actually occurred and reflect creative USMC leadership, 90s style


When you think about it there’s this amazing dichotomy between the prevalence of veterans who claim hearing loss and the military’s near-obsession with wearing hearing protection. Ear plugs are issued, they are on the packing list, and the Corpsman brings a box of “foamies” for those personnel who neglected to bring their own. Sure, there are units that fail to enforce standards and believe earplugs aren’t important. Additionally, youthful male bravado is common in the military as though the adherents possess near immortality. However, most units enforce regulations and exercise corrective action on personnel who breech established standards. Earplugs are required on the rifle range.

Back in the day when a Marine approached the firing line and failed to have earplugs, an NCO would point him to the butt can. The butt can is an ammo can filled with sand that serves as the communal outdoor ash tray. A Marine would then try to find the least disgusting (and hopefully not still moist) cigarette butts and place one in each ear. Most personnel found this repulsive and self-corrected before the next range.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Alfredo Zamarripa, a squad leader with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, puts in ear protection prior to firing an M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle during a live-fire unknown distance range, Feb. 10, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brendan Mullin)

Trigger finger

The Marine Corps has four safety rules for handling weapons. Every Marine alive can rattle them off. One of those rules is, “Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire.” An unintentional firing of the weapon may be explained but never excused. The Marine Corps does not believe in an “accidental discharge” rather characterizes the incident as a “negligent discharge” or “ND." When Lance Corporal Profile had an ND in Heartbreak Ridge, Gunny Highway made him run around the platoon holding his rifle overhead while they marched back to the company area.

The author observed an incident in an unnamed infantry battalion some years past following another Lance Corporal’s ND. The offending Marine was called out in front of the company formation and verbally berated. A Corpsman was then summoned who proceeded to tape two tongue depressors to the Marine’s trigger finger as ordered by an irate Staff NCO. This served to remind the Marine to “Keep his finger straight and off the trigger until he intends to fire." He was instructed not to remove the splint over the weekend, or the Staff NCO would break his finger. All Marines in formation were charged with reporting him if he were seen with the tongue depressors removed. Everyone got the message.

ID card

The Marine Corps had a peculiar habit of requiring personnel to carry their military identification card in their left breast pocket. During an impromptu uniform inspection, the NCO might flick the pocket of the Marine being inspected. A telltale sign would indicate the presence (or lack thereof) of an ID card. Losing one’s ID card was a fairly serious offense. After being publicly shamed and reminded that some freedom hating commie might now use the ID card to gain access to the base, some administrative voodoo would occur that produced a new ID card. In the meantime, a substitute was issued. 

Usually when someone tells you that you are a rock it is a compliment. The insinuation is that you are a solid individual upon whom others can lean on in hard times. Not so in the Marine Corps. When you are called a rock, they mean you are stupid; as in you have the intelligence of a rock. As such, a Marine will be told “Pick up your ID card!” while the NCO points to a rock on the ground. The Marine then carries a cumbersome rock in their left breast pocket until the new official ID card is procured.

Racing stripes

Some recruits arrive at boot camp a few pounds over the maximum standard. They are known as “Diet Recruits” and receive extra attention aiding them in shedding those last pounds. They consume prescribed meals that differ in portion size and option variety from the other recruits. Their skivvy shirts are painted with two horizontal stripes sky lining their status. As soon as they graduate and head off to the Fleet, they lose those embarrassing undershirts and replace them with standard olive drab ones like everyone else, leaving behind their former status as a food blister.

The Marine Corps is obsessed with physical fitness and has little tolerance for those who “can’t hang." Formation runs are trailed by a safety vehicle and Corpsman to treat those who may fall out of the run. Falling out of the run is a sure recipe for assignment to remedial PT. One colorful and intimidating Company Gunny ran in the back of the formation with a can of spray paint. All hands knew if you fell back on the run as far back as Gunny, he would spray paint two racing stripes on your shirt then scream at you to get in the HMMWV. He and you would make up the run Saturday morning. The pitiless Marines in formation would laugh as they heard the rattle can shake and Gunny say “Come on back, I got you!” Public shame elicited a new burst of strength and energy for those struggling to keep up.

The Marines and Sailors of Combat Logistics Battalion 31 recover after a cool down exercise during battalion physical training at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, April 4, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Matt Navarra/Released)

Glow belt

The military loves the safety implement known as the reflective belt (or simply the glow belt). Whether or not a Marine is a true believer in this life saving tool, a Marine leader will enforce its use. The Marine isn’t much on excuses either. During squad PT one morning aboard Camp Lejeune an errant Marine showed up without a glow belt. He was a repeat offender, and no one had an extra one this time. The infantry squad leader knowing he would receive the verbal blast from a Staff NCO on “River Road” for one of his squad members not wearing the glow belt, had a solution. He informed the squad that since no one could run without a glow belt, and neither could he excuse the half-stepper from PT, they would each take turns fireman carrying the miscreant for the duration of the run. A minimum run for Marines is three miles and five miles is not unusual. The hate and pain generated that morning ensured no member of that squad ever showed up for PT without a glow belt again. Pain retains.

Each of these incidents really happened. Names and dates have been withheld as some of the young NCOs exercising the creative leadership described here may still be in uniform as senior leaders. Some of these tactics would result in Non-Judicial Punishment or court-martial today, but in the 90s was simply considered a way to correct the issue without bad paperwork. There’s no excuse for hazing which detracts from, rather than building, unit cohesion, but a case can be made that imaginative solutions involving physical training and public embarrassment can have lasting positive impacts. Sometimes the lessons learned from history are the small ones.


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