Aspin halts Marine plan on marriage Wedded recruits were to be barred

policy wasn't OK'd

August 12, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In an embarrassing breakdown of communications, the Marine Corps said yesterday that it planned to phase out enlistments of married men and women, only to be reversed hours later by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

A day of almost madcap shifts of policy and public relations gaffes began after reporters took notice of an Aug. 5 directive released in the name of Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the Marine Corps commandant, saying that the Marines would restrict new recruitment to single people. The directive said too many young married recruits were failing to re-enlist after long tours away from home.

The Marine announcement was immediately derided by members of Congress and civil libertarians as discriminatory and as an invasion of privacy. But all the while, President Clinton and Mr. Aspin were silent about the shift, even after news accounts were broadcast last night on television networks.

White House officials later said the president had not known of the Marine announcement during a busy afternoon in which he appointed Gen. John Shalikashvili as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then attended an impromptu early birthday party thrown by his staff on the White House South Lawn.

It was only after he returned to the Oval Office in the early evening that he learned for the first time of the new Marine recruitment policy, said a White House aide, adding: "The president was astonished."

David Gergen, the counselor to the president, then called Mr. Aspin. While administration officials said that General Mundy supported the change in policy, he told his superiors that he had not signed off on the directive.

It appeared that a lower-ranking Marine officer had followed through on the commandant's wishes but acted more quickly than the general had planned, adding to the confusion.

At the Pentagon, Mr. Aspin announced the reversal of the policy shortly after he returned to the building from the White House ceremonies on the new leader of the Joint Chiefs.

"The services have the authority to put out specific policies like that," a Pentagon official said. "However, this particular secretary sees family issues as sufficiently important that they require his review."

Mr. Aspin also informed his aides that he would review any future policies regarding the makeup of the Corps.

The short-lived new policy did not try to rid the Marines of married personnel, and Marines who wanted to marry would not have been barred -- although they were to have received other counseling on the pitfalls ahead. But starting Sept. 30, 1995, the Marine Corps would not have accepted married recruits.

The directive said that an inordinate number of marriages of young Marines failed as a result of the pressures of the job.

"Eventually, the weight of family-related problems can disrupt the individual's concentration level, result in decreased performance and require command attention," according to the directive. "Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar pattern."

The new edict would have produced the paradoxical situation in which the Marines would have accepted gay recruits -- as long as they were quiet about their status -- but not married heterosexuals.

While no other branch of the armed services has adopted such a restriction on marriage, the attempt to impose the new Marine regulation was another sign that the nation's military forces face profound social changes as they adjust to new missions in the aftermath of the Cold War.

"The announcement raises concerns about the rights of privacy," said Kathy Parrent, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, before the reversal. "It would appear to be based on stereotypes and it seems to be intrusive meddling unrelated to performance."

Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, the third-ranking Democrat the House Armed Services Committee, also derided the move. "If they are not allowed to be homosexuals and they're not allowed to be married," she asked, "what are they supposed to do, take cold showers?"

Officials at the Navy, Army and Air Force seemed to be only faintly aware of the proposed Marine regulation, and they said their forces did not face similar re-enlistment problems.

The proposed policy would have meant that no more than 4 percent of recruits for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 could be married. That was to have been reduced to 2 percent in the following year. The restrictions were not to have applied to the Marine reserves.

Beginning this fall, Marines were to have received "marriage awareness training" in which they were to have learned of the potential hardships of married life in the service, including low pay and long separations. The program was to have emphasized the advantages of delaying marriage.

"It is an opportunity for the Marine to get counsel on one of the single most important decisions of his/her life," the directive said, "and benefit from the advice of seasoned Marines who have experienced military family life."

Under the aborted policy, Marines who decided to marry would have been required to attend workshops before the wedding or immediately afterward.

Marines in their first term would have been required to consult with their commanding officers before their weddings, beginning Oct. 1. "This consultation requirement will not be misconstrued as a requirement to obtain permission to marry," the directive said, adding that it would simply be a matter of counseling.

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