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When the last combat troops leave Afghanistan at the end of this year, it will be the beginning of a new era for the U.S. military. That prospect has prompted one top commander to assess his institution's values and standards, which have showed signs of strain over this long period of war. General James Amos is a commandant of the Marine Corps. He's calling this effort to revitalize the core values of the Marines the Reawakening.
We sat down with him here at NPR West when he was in L.A. for Operation Mend, which provides constructive surgery veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thank you very much for joining us.
GENERAL JAMES AMOS COMMANDANT, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Oh, you're welcome. It's good to be here.
MONTAGNE: Let me begin by asking you how you envision the changes ahead for your Marines, compared to these last many years of war?
CORPS: Well, the interesting thing is in today's world, unlike coming out of Vietnam, where you had almost a decade or two decades to kind of reset and kind of recalibrate yourself and get ready for the next conflict, I don't think we're going to have that option, not for today's Marines. I see thorny, nasty places around the world where Marines are going to go in, in a combat environment. South Sudan is a great example. Just earlier last month, we were in South Sudan, pulling out the Americans. I think it will be the shorter deployments, probably way less predictable than what we've been involved in for the last 12 years.
MONTAGNE: Well, then let's get to this idea that you introduced last fall of getting back to core values. You sent out a letter aimed at, for the most part, the enlisted men.
MONTAGNE: And I won't quote you. I'm looking right here at the letter, just one line, which is: I need your help to reawaken the soul of our corps against an enemy emerging from within our ranks. Who or what is the enemy?
CORPS: First of all, the 98 percent of the Marine Corps is absolutely on what I call a moral compass heading of true north. We're really talking about those 2 percent that are out there on the fringes of our institution, they wear our cloth, and they're not living up to our standards. And it's being manifested in a variety of different kinds of poor-choice behaviors. It can be hazing. It can be sexual assault. I mean, it can be abusive behavior, not only to Marines, but perhaps to yourself or your family. So that's what we're talking about.
MONTAGNE: Do you have actual numbers that you can give an example, say, hazing or sexual assault?
CORPS: We do. Sexual assault, 853 cases last year, compared to 453 the year before. But now I want to be clear about this: We started about a year and a half ago on a campaign plan within the Marine Corps. One of the things that has come up over the last year and a half is our young Marines are afraid to come forward and report a sexual assault for a variety of reasons, one of which is they don't have confidence in the command. They feel like they'll be re-victimized and they won't be believed. So when we started this campaign a year and a half ago on sexual assault specifically, we targeted that. So this increase in reporting, this basically doubling of reporting - I think it's an 87 percent increase from the year before - is also a signal of trust. I don't know that there are more sexual assaults happening today than there were a year ago.
MONTAGNE: One of the most disturbing and high-profile cases of misconduct by Marines involved Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
MONTAGNE: A video of the incident was posted online about two years ago. What did you think when you saw it?
CORPS: Oh, I was ashamed. I think that's probably the greatest - the adjective probably describes how I felt. And we, as an institution, by the way, the Marine Corps, more than any of the other services, this matter of bringing shame on the institution means a lot to us.
MONTAGNE: You got caught up in fallout from this incident. Broadly speaking, it began - according to legal documents - when you told the general you appointed to oversee an investigation, that you wanted those Marines, in the documents, your language was crushed and kicked out. Now, that led to a cascade of accusations. One, the main one at the beginning was that you used your influence as the top general unlawfully. OK.
CORPS: No. I mean, no. No.
MONTAGNE: You're looking at me, like, I mean...
CORPS: No. I'd be happy to talk about it.
CORPS: I have never, ever said that I wanted them crushed and kicked out. I don't recall at all saying that. What I do recall is there was some motivation on my part - without getting into the exact matters of the meeting - there was some motivation on my part that I questioned some early decisions by the commander. And once I left that meeting, I went, OK. That probably wasn't the right thing to do is at relates to undue - what we call undue command influence, the influence that a commander, a senior commander can have on the junior commander.
And so immediately, to correct that, I moved that case to another three-star general, and then I stayed completely out of it. And the cases have been processed through that other three-star general, and I would argue they've been handled justly. So, the matter of influence from my office was my concern with regards to my attitude as I was talking to my younger commander. And I didn't - as I got back, and I thought this is probably something that I shouldn't have done. I mean, he got the impression quickly that I was not pleased with how this conversation was going.
MONTAGNE: Would he, though, have gotten the impression that he was moved because he questioned?
CORPS: I think that's absolutely specious. I think that - and I've kept my mouth shut for a year and a half, and I think that's absolutely specious. I mean, I can't speak for him, but I can speak for myself.
MONTAGNE: What sort of punishment has been meted out to those Marines?
CORPS: Each one of them have been dealt with what we call non-judicial punishment, in some cases, which is dealt with at a lower level, kind of punitive level. Some Marines were reduced in grade from their previous ranks. I don't know that any of them have been discharged from the Marine Corps. I'm not sure. I can't remember. Certainly, none of them have been crushed or thrown out of the Marine Corps, and that's an important point.
MONTAGNE: General Amos, over the last 13 years, virtually everyone who enlisted in the Marine Corps had a chance to see action, probably many signed on to fight. How are you aiming to keep the Marines motivated?
CORPS: You know, we're a young service. Easily, 70 percent of the Marine Corps joined after 9-11. It's interesting. And you're 100 percent correct. When we started to grow the Marine Corps in 2007, we were up to our neck in fighting. The casualties were running high, and yet we grew 27,000 Marines in two years and the quality increased, and became better quality than we had before. Young men and women just came forward. And so when we shift and we come out of Afghanistan the end of this year, these same Marines are still young, and they want to do something. And so you ask how we're going to motivate them, we are a forward-deployed Marine Corps. So, we are looking for every opportunity to get Marines back out on ships, get them overseas. It's not a garrison Marine Corps we're trying to build. And that's the message we're telling our young marines.
MONTAGNE: One last question: I want to ask you about Fallujah, a city where Marines fought their toughest battles of the Iraq War. Fallujah recently fell under the control of an insurgent group affiliated with al-Qaida, which raised its black flag over the city. What have you been hearing from your Marines, and what are you telling them?
CORPS: Well, we take it personally. I'd be less than honest with you if I said that any other way. We take it personally. We lost 852 marines killed in action in Iraq. A large percentage of those were between Fallujah and Ramadi. So, when we look back on that, when we finished the mission, we'd made a difference. The tribal chiefs - the sheiks in Iraq, is what they call them - had stepped up. They were in charge of their own destiny in the Anbar province. We know these sheiks by name. We know their tribes. We know their history. And I've got a lot of confidence in them. This hasn't completely played out yet. I was talking to some of my folks the other day, and it reminded me that, you know, regardless of what happens in Iraq, the Marines sanctified the ground in the Anbar province. And that's the way we look at it. We sanctified that ground. We can't control destiny.
MONTAGNE: General James Amos. He is the commandant of the Marine Corps. Thank you very much for joining us.
CORPS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.