The Marine Reconnaissance community has been through a lot in the last ten years. Some of it has gone for the better. A lot of it has not.
At the beginning of the war in Iraq, 1st Recon Bn was pushed into a mechanized role it wasn’t prepared for. The men took the mission and did what they could with it, pushing ahead of 1st Marine Division on the way to Baghdad, securing important sites and looking for Iraqi forces. 1st Force, augmented by platoons from 3rd and 4th Force, was out on the flanks, supporting I MEF on the march up.
But when they redeployed, 1st Recon Bn found itself holding battlespace. Recon Marines were put in the role of regular grunts. Even after Recon stopped holding ground in 2005, we regularly found ourselves in similar situations, just not tied to a particular area. Conventional Marine commanders had no idea how to employ a Reconnaissance unit.
Some of this was due to a lack of understanding. Some of it was, and is, willful ignorance.
In 2005, General Hagee, the 33rd Commandant of the Marine Corps, announced that, “There are no elite units in the Marine Corps, as the Marine Corps is itself an elite organization.” This was taken as a direct slap at the Recon community, which has long held itself to a higher standard than the Marine Corps. The refusal to consider possible unconventional applications of Recon units only reflected this attitude.
Marine Corps policy for leadership in Recon units has also increasingly reflected an attitude that Recon has to be brought down to the level of everyone else. Officers, 1st Sgts, and Sgts Major in Recon units are now rarely if ever Recon Marines themselves. They do not understand the mission, the standards, or, most importantly, the operational culture, and it leads to significant clashes and morale problems.
Meanwhile, starting in 2005, and increasing especially as MARSOC was stood up, and the demand for Recon Marines increased, the standards began to be lowered. The required GT score was dropped, for a while, from 110 to 100. One only had to score a first-class PFT with a score of 225; in the old days you had to score a minimum of a 275 on the PFT to be considered for Recon. Corrective training, and eventually physical training as a whole, was cut back by Senior NCOs’ orders.
As a consequence of some of the reduced standards, particularly involving corrective training, there has been a generation of new Recon Marines who haven’t learned the humility that used to be taught along with the skill and toughness. This has, unfortunately, led to a level of complacency and a falloff of field skill, as some of these boot “experts” don’t think they need to worry about such details.
The formation of the MSOBs from the Force Recon Companies has had another unfortunate side effect, especially now as the Force Companies are being stood back up. A lot of the unit history has been lost. While there are those who are endeavoring to rebuild what the Companies used to be, they are hampered by many of the same leadership issues I mentioned above, especially as they are still too undermanned to separate from the Recon Bns. Post-Iraq-and-Afghanistan cutbacks have further cut into training and manning.
It sounds pretty bleak. To a lot of us, it is pretty bleak, especially when the community seems to take two steps forward, only to lose it all due to other priorities on the part of senior leadership. There are dedicated Recon Marines, however, who remember what the community used to be, and are still fighting to bring it back to its former glory. A large part of this has already happened at the Recon Training Center, at SOI West on Camp Pendleton, where the cadre has worked hard to get the standards back up. Dedicated veterans at the Recon Bns and Force Companies are also trying to rebuild a capability that has been allowed to atrophy.
It’s an uphill battle. Recon is the bastard child of the Marine Corps. Tell another Marine that you’re an 0321, and you’ll get one of two reactions most of the time: you’ll be looked at as a demigod, or a pariah. The higher ranking the Marine, the more likely you’ll be treated as a pariah. When the Recon leadership is being drawn from outside the community, from a subset that resents the Recon identity, it makes it hard to maintain the pride and history that goes back to World War II.
It will be maintained, somehow. Because part of the Recon Creed says, “I will never quit.”