Monday, January 07, 2008

Top 10 things Marines can look for in 2008

By Kimberly Johnson - Staff writer
Posted : Sunday Jan 6, 2008 9:01:18 EST

For the Corps, 2008 will be the Year of More.

More Marines. More training. More money.

After a year that saw plenty of changes — from a crackdown on tattoos to special-operations Marines deploying for the first time since, arguably, the Marine Raider Battalions of old — the promise of even more changes means more to look forward to and more to consider.

Whether it’s units coming home or units going over, new gear or new rules, there’s something for everyone in ’08. Keep reading for your preview of the Top 10 things to come.

1. 202,000 Marines
The Corps will continue its drive toward an end strength of 202,000 Marines by 2011, aiming to add about 5,000 to the roll in 2008. That increase will help feed the creation of new units, including a new infantry battalion in the coming year, according to the Corps’ outline for the plus-up.

It’s a plan that will eventually help Marines extend time at home between deployments, said Commandant Gen. James Conway. Currently, infantry Marines spend about seven months stateside for every seven months deployed, he said. He wants to see that average shift to 14 months at home for every seven months deployed.

“You can look forward to the continued growth of the Corps with highly qualified young Americans who meet Marine Corps standards and who want to be Marines,” Conway said during a Dec. 17 interview in his Pentagon office. “As we continue to do that, I think you can look toward a better deployment-to-dwell percentage. That’s why we’re growing the force.”

2. More money
Furthering the goal of growing the force is the Corps’ plan to hold tight to the leathernecks it has, which translates into cash for Marines willing to re-sign on the dotted line.

While Corps officials keep details for 2008 close to their vests, sources said new cash incentives are on the horizon, including possible bonuses for company-grade officers extending their commitment, and sign-on bonuses for college graduates who complete The Basic School. There’s even talk of the Corps rogering up to pay off its new officers’ student loans.

The Army has a $35,000 cash incentive for its infantry captains to stay put for three more years, which has many questioning whether the Corps will do the same.

“We’re conscious of that,” Conway said. “We hope we never get to that situation.

“We don’t pay a lot of bonuses for people to join, and I don’t think we’re going to change that,” he said. “When it comes to re-enlistment bonuses, we’ll match anybody. When we find a good Marine, we want to hang onto him or her, and we’re going to pay what we think we need to when it comes to retention.”

Marines of all ranks were due to receive a 3.5 percent pay raise effective Jan. 1, but that may be held up due to a White House threat to veto the defense authorization bill. They’re guaranteed 3 percent Jan. 1; the extra half point will come later and be retroactive to Jan. 1. The bill also extends Temporary Lodging Expense payments from the current 20-day cap to 60 days in certain unusual circumstances.

Military bonus and special pay incentive programs that were set to expire Dec. 31 will be extended through Dec. 31, 2008. Congress also authorized a ten-fold increase in hardship-duty pay for the services — from a cap of $150 per month to a maximum of $1,500 per month — but left it to the services to decide how much of that would be paid.

Also set to rise is the Basic Allowance for Housing for homes off-base, which increased by an average of 7.3 percent as of Jan. 1, a rate more than twice last year’s average increase of 3.5 percent. That translates into about an $80 monthly increase for an average E-8 family with dependents, defense officials estimate.

3. Fitness and appearance
The Corps intends to take its body-composition standards up a notch by doing away with the association — and thus the underlying reward system — of the physical fitness test to the body-composition calculation. This means that a first-class PFT score won’t gain you wiggle room on your body-composition assessments.

The Corps is also launching the Marine Appearance Program, meant to ensure Marines look the part. That means leathernecks aged 17 to 26 carrying more than 18 percent body fat can expect a lot of attention from their command in the coming year.

Along with new body composition and appearance standards comes a combat fitness test aimed at measuring a Marine’s battlefield ability through drills such as grenade throws, dynamic entry, casualty carry, maneuver under fires and ammo resupply.

The CFT will be administered the same day as the PFT and is expected to be phased in by June.

4. Deployments
Speaking of summer fun, deployable Marines also can expect to freshen up their Anbar suntan in the coming year. Despite dauntless attempts by Conway, war planners have said no — for now — to the idea of taking Marines out of Iraq and putting them back into Afghanistan.

Even though Marine units will continue to deploy to Iraq for the foreseeable future, Conway continues to look for ways to draw down his forces, even if it’s piecemeal, in order to offer relief for those constantly away from home.

“Where we can help ourselves with some of those low-density, high-demand units, we’d like to do that,” Conway said. “Can we send detachments as opposed to entire squadrons? Can we send a fewer number of people that can still give us the capacity we need, but do it for less numbers of people so we could do something about the deployment-to-dwell [ratio]?

“It’s probably the one objective that we haven’t made tick marks of progress along the line since last year, but therefore it’s really uppermost in our mind,” he added.

Any hope the Corps had to improve the operational tempo in Iraq during 2007 was dashed in the spring, when war planners ordered a surge of forces, which included a Marine expeditionary unit and infantry battalions, as well as supporting units.

However, progress on that front could appear in spring 2008 when the Corps’ surge forces begin to return home, Conway said. As the Corps returns to its normalized rotations in Iraq, it also will see the creation of battalions associated with end-strength growth. At least one infantry battalion — 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines — is slated to stand up in 2008, officials said last year. Added to that is the potential for a reduction in the force requirement in Iraq later in the year, Conway said.

“All of those things are somehow in work,” Conway said. “There is, I think, distinctly a light at the end of the tunnel.”

5. Revamping family services
Marine families have something to look forward to in the coming year, including more money, staff and expanded services from the Family Readiness Program.

“We realize that families are the most brittle part of this deployment equation,” Conway said. “We’re putting significant amounts of money, both Marine Corps money and Global War on Terrorism supplemental monies, toward family programs and enhancement of the bases that are family friendly.”

One key area destined for improvement is the Corps’ volunteer program, which Conway admits has been stretched thin over the course of five years of steady deployments.

“The volunteer program isn’t necessarily engineered to work against a long-term struggle, a long-term fight like we see ourselves in,” he said. “We’ve got to, I think, stop taking advantage of our volunteers and start employing some people to do some of those things that our volunteers have done time after time after time for us.”

The Corps also will look at improving day-care options and base amenities, such as bike paths, in an effort to keep families rooted, he said.

Playground equipment and improved fitness centers may be added to the smaller installations that have fewer amenities.

And new programs for Marines’ parents will be rolled out this year, part of an effort to expand the Family Readiness Program beyond spouses and children.

“We’d like to keep our families at the bases and installations when their Marines are gone,” Conway said. “Some choose to go home because there’s a more family friendly environment, but what our families find is that they share little in common with the people at home. They don’t understand the nature of deployments and the nature of the Marine way of life. If we can make it more hospitable for them to stay, I think that benefits everybody in the long term.”

6. Faster flights
If you’re deploying in the coming year, chances are you will fly on the MV-22 Osprey, which is going to make your flights a lot shorter.

Ospreys deployed in Iraq with Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Squadron 263 are transporting Marines and conducting combat missions, Conway said, adding that they eventually will replace the CH-46E and the medium-lift CH-53D. “They’re doing everything those airplanes do, except they’re doing it three times faster,” he said during a Dec. 5 press briefing at the Pentagon.

The Corps expects to receive 14 MV-22s in 2008 and is standing up an additional squadron — VMM-264 — at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., in October, said Maj. Eric Dent, a Marine Corps spokesman.

The year ahead also will see VMM-162 head to Iraq on its first combat deployment, once VMM-263 returns.

7. New gear
With another year comes cooler gear, literally. The Corps’ new closet of Flame Resistant Organizational Gear is going high-tech in 2008, with the introduction of new textile technology that will be anti-microbial and moisture wicking, said Austin Johnson, spokesman for Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va. The new FROG fabric also will be more durable, have improved flame resistance and be used in two new pieces of outerwear, he said.

“More of this gear is on the way for when Marines deploy,” Johnson said. “On the way in early 2008 are flame-resistant fleece pullovers. A flame-resistant outer garment for cooler/cold weather is being worked on for later in 2008.”

The Corps’ FROG suit includes flame-resistant gloves, balaclavas, long-sleeve T-shirts and combat shirts and trousers.

8. More flattery
Several movies slated for release in the coming year will have that certain Marine spice, according to the Corps’ Motion Picture and Television Liaison office in Los Angeles.

“Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon, and “Iron Man,” which has Marine characters, both come out in 2008.

But leathernecks can give a big sigh of relief that one upcoming movie won’t be based on the Corps, after all. “Major Movie Star,” starring Jessica Simpson, was initially penned as a comedy about a Hollywood actress who enlists in the Corps to show studio executives she is capable of taking on a military role. However, conflict arose around the movie’s romantic plotline between a drill instructor and a recruit, according to a Marine source. After the Corps said that story line was all wrong, Simpson suddenly became “Army Strong,” transforming into a soldier recruit instead.

While the Corps won’t be represented by Simpson, it will be representing during “American Idol.”

A slick new Corps commercial aimed at the people who influence potential recruits, such as parents and teachers, will debut in January during the popular reality show.

9. New barracks
New digs are on the way in 2008, as the Corps makes improved living spaces a priority, its top officer said.

The Corps needs to spend $2 billion between 2008 and 2011 for construction, planning, design, furnishings and equipment to revamp existing barracks or tear down old ones.

“Even if we weren’t growing the Corps, we would need new barracks,” Conway said. “We have really, I think, put ourselves against the firewall, in terms of quality of life for our single Marines and barracks life in general.”

Conway told Congress in March that much of the Corps’ barracks infrastructure was antiquated — 43 bachelor enlisted quarters were built between 1920 and 1940.

Recent estimates from Installation & Logistics at Marine Corps headquarters show that under a two-to-a-room standard, the Corps lacks 16,000 barracks spaces, in addition to another 12,000-space deficiency linked to the end-strength plus-up by 2011.

“We neglected our barracks for years for other operational requirements,” Conway said in the Dec. 5 interview.

According to Capt. Amy Malugani, a Corps spokeswoman, the Bush administration’s 2008 budget calls for funding barracks construction projects Corps-wide: six at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; three at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; two at Quantico; and one each at MCAS Yuma, Ariz.; Hawaii; New River; and Twentynine Palms, Calif. While the funding was put in place for 2008, construction might not begin until 2009, she said.

10. Clothing
Last, but certainly not least, Marines will see the long-awaited running suit, which everyone should have by next fall, Conway said.

The new green running suit sports material and design features that allow for moisture management, reflectivity, anti-microbial protection and breathability. Conway approved the final design in late 2007, and fielding will begin during 2008.

“This is not intended to replace the items already in the seabag, such as green-on-green shorts and sweats,” said Johnson, the SysCom spokesman.

In addition, thousands of the new desert combat jackets — a Gore-Tex jacket with a Polartec lining specially designed for conditions in Iraq — will be shipped to Marines in the coming year. Leathernecks will be able to wear the new jacket instead of their blouse, in some cases.


Staff writer Andrew Tilghman contributed to this story.

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