ARLINGTON, Va. – In late 2006, the United States was engaged in a two-front war with Marines deploying every seven months. Their families were forced to deal with the high deployment tempo and the consequences that came with it. Some returned bearing physical and emotional scars, and were left to deal with their war wounds — alone.
General James T. Conway decided it was time to address those issues when taking the helm as the 34th commandant of the Marine Corps. He had many goals to support Marines in the long war. Increasing dwell time between deployments and wounded warrior care were among his many successful initiatives.
“For the entire time that I’ve been the commandant, we’ve been at war,” Conway said. “The number one priority has always been to win these conflicts and provide for the Marines at the point of the spear.”
Providing for those who served at the tip of the spear included proper medical care once they returned from the front lines. Therefore, under Conway’s instruction, the Wounded Warrior Regiment was created in April 2007.
“This Wounded Warrior Regiment takes care of our young Marines and sailors in a way that’s never been accomplished by this country,” Conway said.
The regiment provides wounded, ill and injured Marines and their families with support through recovery, reintegration and transition back to the fleet or the civilian world.
“We had a great first commander, Col. Greg Boyle, took over the regiment brought it to a plateau beyond where I had anticipated it could go so rapidly,” Conway said.
Although the regiment has been successfully taking care of service members for more than three years now, Conway encourages the Corps to strive for more.
“We continue to live off the regiment’s initial success and we continue to look at improvements,” Conway said. “How can we do more? What can we do better? We hope the day will come that the regiment is no longer necessary, but in the mean time there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. I’d say they are doing it very ably.”
Throughout his tenure as commandant, Conway also focused on increasing post traumatic stress awareness, admitting that pride can hinder a Marine’s ability to recover.
“Marines are inherently tough and don’t want to admit to those kinds of things, so we’ve got to get the issue more out in to the open,” Conway said.
Recognizing the problem and seeking help became one of his talking points while traveling throughout the Corps and holding town hall meetings.
“The fact is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a non-visual wound, but it’s still a wound,” Conway said. “We have a responsibility to help them any way we can to adjust. There’s no stigma associated with that. The sergeant major and I have tried to hammer home that point from the very beginning.”
Marines are known for achieving victory through small unit leadership and teamwork. Addressing PTSD is no different, he added. “Seek help — we don’t do things individually,” Conway said. We do things as a fire team or as a squad so we are more effective when we work together.”
As the signs of combat fatigue began to affect Marines and their families, the commandant began an initiative to increase the size of the Corps to 202,000 Marines, allowing longer dwell time between deployments.
“It was not as difficult in the end as we thought it was going to be,” Conway said. “Some of my best advisers said, ‘you know you have to lower the standards; you have to go to the Department of Defense standards,’ and it was a tough call. I called out to speak to the recruiters and said, ‘hey gang, I don’t want to lower standards but we have to make these numbers; otherwise, our critics are going to say it’s not possible.’”
The recruiters answered as any Marine would. Without lowering the enlistment standards, the Marine Corps grew by more than 12,000 Marines in fiscal year 2008 with an unprecedented increase in enlistment and retention rates. The combined efforts between career planners and recruiters led the Corps to accomplish its 202k mission much earlier than anticipated.
“We had allowed ourselves five years for the growth, but in fact, these Marines started churning so effectively, we did it in about two and half years,” Conway said.
By growing the force, the individual Marine’s deployment rate decreased.
Although the Marine Corps grew, some households continued to suffer. Family readiness programs were established prior to Conway’s command, but the ongoing wars made strengthening them a priority for him.
The Corps needed take care of those families to ensure Marines were confident; ensuring, Conway said.
Through his unyielding support for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, 202K initiative and strengthening family readiness, Conway helped lead his Marines to victory in Iraq, a victory many Americans thought impossible.
Conway attributes his confidence in his Marines to an experience he had as a division commander.
“A young corporal on a training evolution noticed two trucks were going to collide,” Conway said. “He pushed a fellow Marine out of the way, lifted a Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps midshipman to safety, and was crushed to death — an incredible act of heroism, even in peace time.”
“Going forward with the confidence that we recruited, trained and developed, those kinds of Marines never left any doubt in my mind as to how things were going to turn out in Iraq,” Conway said.
Conway also attributes the victory to the perseverance and resiliency of today’s Marines. Around 73 percent of eligible Marines have deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“They’re incredible young men and women,” Conway said. “We’ve known that all along, but the fact is that they wanted to get to Iraq to fight for their country. A number have gone back four or five times, yet the dedication level, motivation level; the support from the families has just not decreased.”
Conway also said he’s confident that these Marines are ready and prepared for what they will face in the future.
“We have a lot of lessons learned that are being sent almost immediately back into our training and into our workup. We’ve have immersive trainers that put you into a combat environment similar to the ones our Marines are facing while deployed. Our intent for that young Marine who may be there for the first time is to say, ‘hey, this is not new. I’ve been here before and have done these kinds of things; it was back in 29 Palms, but the fact is I’m not surprised by anything I see here,’” Conway said.
The commandant believes this young generation’s experience will catapult Marines to lead a better Corps in the future.
“I think we’re going to have a heck of a Marine Corps 10 years from now. Our company commanders and battalion commanders know what’s important; they’ve seen their country go to war,” Conway said. “They won’t accept any nonsense that might otherwise restrict our ability to continue to do that.”
Looking toward the future, Conway trusts the Marine Corps will return to its amphibious roots in a post-Afghanistan era.
“We have grown very [armor] heavy. We’ve used the term ‘second land army’ and I think that gives sort of a visual,” Conway said. “We also believe we are the nation’s foremost expeditionary force. Our definition of expeditionary is fast, austere and lethal. And you can’t be fast if you’re also heavy.”
Out of necessity, the Marine Corps has increased the amount of armor Marines and their vehicles carry to deter an adaptive enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re going to have to shuck some of this armor that we’ve brought aboard to help defend our troops against the signature weapon of the insurgents — the improvised explosive device,” Conway said. “We’re going to have to accept some risk in doing that. But we believe that through maneuver, through surprise, through some of our old methodologies using combined arms, we can be very effective and not miss a beat.”
Conway said he is confident in the Marines of the present and optimistic for the Marines of the future.
“My most memorable day was the day that we took off from Al Asad airfield in Iraq. I realized that would be my last time in that country, and reflected back to all the great Marines and sailors that had been there — a number of which had given their lives. And yet, we were coming out successful in terms of what we were sent there to do. That was pretty memorable,” he said.
As Conway enters a new phase of his life, the Corps turns its attention to Operation Enduring Freedom, where the most combat-experienced generation of Marines since World War II are shaping a brighter future for Afghanistan.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” Conway said. “I will miss being around those great young men and women who are true patriots and American warriors who rushed to the defense of our country. That has been the pure enjoyment and what has made 40 years dedicated to the Marine Corps pass so quickly.”