At the beginning of a new century, focused increasingly on the use of high
technology in warfare, the U.S. Marines still are training their officers the
old-fashioned way-quick, dirty and decidedly "low tech."
"Marine Officer Candidate School (OCS) hasn't changed in 20 or 30 years,"
explained Col. George J. Flynn, the school's commanding officer. "We don't
think technology has any effect on training leaders." Just having completed
an early morning, four-mile run, he sat down in his office recently to explain
his program to National Defense.
"We teach basic warfighting-making you hot, tired and dirty and seeing
if you make good decisions," Flynn said. "Do you keep trying, or do
you quit? Can you overcome obstacles? Can you cope with chaos? You have to want
to become a Marine."
The Marines have been recruiting officers since their founding in Philadelphia,
in 1775. That year's quota was for 10 officers. Of the 173,000 men and women
in today's Marine Corps, almost 18,000 are officers. Keeping those ranks full
requires about 1,625 new officer candidates each year, according to Capt. Jeffrey
Sammons, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. The Marine Corps
has been successful in meeting that goal for more than four years, despite a
dwindling supply of recruits and a refusal by some colleges to cooperate with
recruiters, Marine Commandant James L. Jones told National Defense.
The recruiters have met their goals by "showing some ingenuity,"
said Sammons. "If they can't get on college campuses, they go to where
the students hang out-to the malls and the Internet" he explained.
Not everybody who applies can qualify to become a Marine officer. To be accepted,
candidates must be either a full-time time college student with a grade point
average of 2.0 or better or a graduate with at least a four-year degree. Candidates
also must be under 27 1/2 years of age to qualify for flight training or under
30 for all other assignments.
All Marine officers receive a large portion of their basic training at the
sprawling Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va., on the Potomac River, 35 miles
south of Washington, D.C. The Marines have trained their officers at Quantico's
100-square-mile base since 1917. The training comes in two parts:
- OCS, which provides initial training for all would-be Marine officers, except
for those who graduate from the Naval Academy. Graduates of the academy receive
their basic military training there.
The Basic School, a longer course of study designed to provide all new Marine
lieutenants-including academy graduates-with a professional-level military education
focused on the requirements of the Corps. (Related story p. 34)
OCS comes in several formats, Flynn explained. College students, who opt for
the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) and want to become Marines,
spend a month to six weeks each summer of their college career in training.
Those who sign up for the Platoon Leaders Class can elect either to attend
two six-week summer sessions in their freshman or sophomore year, or they can
choose a single 10-week course in the summer following their junior year.
College seniors and graduates can elect to attend an Officer Candidate Class,
a 10-week session that can occur at any time after graduation. The goal for all of these options is the same, Flynn said, "to train,
evaluate and screen officer candidates to ensure that they possess the moral,
intellectual and physical qualities and the leadership potential to serve successfully
as company-grade offices in the Fleet Marine Force."
The kind of training offered at OCS, he said, is dramatically different from
that found either at the Naval Academy or at enlisted boot camps at Parris Island
and San Diego. "Unlike the academy-where I graduated-we only have the candidates
for a few short weeks," Flynn said. "We have to make the most of it."
During that time, Flynn explained, the goal is to develop "a lieutenant
who has exhibited the potential to think and to lead under the stress of combat."
This, he said, is quite different from enlisted training, which is designed
to produce "basic Marines who will obey, react and follow" during
Thus, unlike enlisted boot camp, Flynn said, OCS doesn't begin "with a
lot of screaming and shouting" when the drill instructor picks up his platoon.
"The candidates are kind of shocked because it begins so quietly,"
he noted. The pace, however, quickly picks up.
The instructors assemble their assigned platoon in a classroom and then "they
have a little contest to see who can empty out the classroom the fastest." The instructor's job, Flynn explained, is "to create chaos and confusion."
The candidate's job, he added, is to learn how to make decisions, even to lead
under those conditions.
"They're not checking into a Holiday Inn," Flynn said. "They're
going to live in a squad bay with 50 of their new-found closest friends. "It's a culture shock for most of them," Flynn said. Unlike previous
generations, fewer than 10 percent of them have relatives with military experience. "They come here, and they're clueless," Flynn said. "Their knowledge
of the military is limited to what they see on television."
Welcome to the Marines
Once at OCS, the candidates get a quick immersion into military culture. They
learn such subjects as close-order drill, weapons handling and care, fireteam
and squad-level tactics, map reading and hand-to-hand combat. They study Marine
Corps history. "We teach them that they are inheriting a proud legacy, and that they
have to carry on that legacy," said Flynn.
The candidates learn to hike with full combat gear-including rifle, pack and
camouflaged helmet-starting with distances of three miles and building to 11
to 15 miles. Physical training is emphasized. Recruiters warn candidates that they "must
be in excellent physical condition when arriving at OCS, or you may risk physical
When they arrive at OCS, instructors note, men should be able to perform a
minimum of three pull ups and 50 stomach crunches and to run three miles in
28 minutes. Women-who make up 8 to 10 percent of the candidates-should be able
to perform a flexed-arm hang for a minimum of 15 seconds and 50 stomach crunches
and to run three miles in 31 minutes.
It may take candidates up to 12 weeks of physical training beforehand to get
in shape for OCS, the recruiters advise. Candidates are required to buy their own running shoes, preferably before they
arrive at OCS. At OCS, "we run with the candidates," said Flynn. "We do the
confidence course with them. We exercise with them. The sergeant major is out
there with them right now. We take pride in setting the example."
Despite its best efforts, the Marine Corps has a long history of training accidents.
Just last July, an enlisted Marine collapsed and died after an eight-mile night
conditioning hike during infantry training at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Coping with Heat Injuries
OCS tries to avoid heat-related injuries, particularly during summer months,
when most candidates attend the school. Reveille-morning wakeup-is early, at
5 a.m., when it is still cool. Also, said Flynn: "We make sure they get
Every platoon has a Navy corpsman, or medic, and an ambulance to accompany
the unit during exercise, he said. Lastly, he noted, OCS operates its own medical
clinic specializing in sports-like injuries. Medically, he said, "we treat
our candidates like major-league football players."
The final exercise in Marine officer training is a three-day ordeal called
the OCS Crucible, which emphasizes teamwork under stress. It begins at midnight
and includes nightime hikes, bivouacs, and combat squad maneuvers.
By the time it is over, candidates will have dealt with a dozen or more squad
attack problems-both day and night-and completed 45 miles of hiking or running
in full combat gear. On the third day, the tired, dirty and hungry candidates
get a helicopter ride to the Basic School, a resupply mission and a run of the
NATO Obstacle Course. The Crucible culminates with a tour of the Basic School
and a "warrior meal," their first opportunity to dine with the second
lieutenants attending the school.
All thoughout OCS, the candidates are being evaluated by their instructors,
who are all non-commissioned officers. "On graduation day, the candidates
become second lieutenants, senior to the instructors," said Flynn. "The
instructors have a vested interest in choosing good leaders."
The evaluation goes on 24 hours a day, seven days-even on weekends, when the
candidates, unlike enlisted recruits, get "liberty," or time off-Flynn
said. "We just had a candidate who thought he could go to the post exchange in
flip flops, with his pants hanging off his hips," he explained. "However,
he ran into his platoon sergeant, who immediately sent him back to the barracks.
He may not get liberty this weekend."
Unlike enlisted recruits, officer candidates are free to drop out at any time,
Flynn pointed out. "We won't force anybody to accept a commission,"
he said. About 83 percent of the candidates, on average, successfully complete the training
and become officers, Flynn said. "On commissioning day, there's not a prouder
group of young men and women anywhere, because they have earned the right to
be called U.S. Marine officers," Flynn said.