Marine commander steps down today

Outspoken advocate ends 4-year term, family tenure leading `beloved Corps'

June 30, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- He is a shining hero to novelist John Irving, a canny lobbyist in the halls of Congress and a frequent irritant -- especially to some U.S. Naval Academy officials.

And this afternoon he will give up his title: commandant of the Marine Corps.

Gen. Charles C. Krulak, 57, the terrierlike officer with a Great Dane presence, will turn over command of his "beloved Corps" to Lt. Gen. James L. Jones, the top military aide to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

The day will mark a milestone, the last day in nearly 70 years that a Krulak rises and dons the Marine's globe, anchor and eagle. For more than three generations, Krulak and his father, himself a legendary general, have helped to shape the Corps and prepare it for future battles.

The retiring general, a 1964 Naval Academy graduate, is in no mood to wax philosophical about his four years as leader of "America's 911 force." He brushes aside a question about his legacy.

"We made Marines to win battles," he declared in his rapid-fire twang. "It was not my legacy. It was the legacy of 172,800 Marines."

Toughened boot camp

Yet, besides his colorful ways, Krulak will be remembered for toughening Marine boot camp with the Crucible, 54 hours of sleep deprivation and teamwork that recruits must endure before they wear the Corps' emblem.

He also pressed for money and training to combat terrorism -- particularly the biological and chemical variety -- and to fight the battles of the future: brush-fire wars that will be a hybrid of firefight, peacekeeping patrol and humanitarian mission. Krulak is fond of saying Marines of the future may find all three within a few blocks of a foreign city.

On Capitol Hill, Krulak was seen as the most candid of the military chiefs, loudly decrying the drop in Pentagon spending and at times questioning the administration's policies.

He warned Congress in January that unless lawmakers increased President Clinton's budget for the Marine Corps, the 911 force could become the 91 force.

In the midst of NATO's air war against Yugoslavia, Krulak questioned whether there was an exit strategy or a next military step if the bombing didn't succeed.

"He's an individual who always calls it as he sees it," says retired Marine Brig. Gen. Tom Draude, a close friend. "If he's silent, he's condoning it."

No nameplate

Draude notes that no nameplate adorns Krulak's Pentagon desk, only an embroidered sign with a single word: Integrity.

Krulak's supporters say this character trait, along with the concepts of duty and honor, were bred into the general.

His father, Victor H. "Brute" Krulak, was a towering figure in the Corps, helping develop the amphibious landing craft that was used from Iwo Jima to Normandy during World War II.

The younger Krulak spent his high school years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In the school's wrestling room in 1958, the 121-pound Krulak met the 133-pound Irving. The Marine aspirant and the future novelist began a friendship that lasts to this day.

When Irving penned his Vietnam War novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany," about a young soldier and his single heroic act, Krulak's name appeared in the acknowledgments as "my hero."

Irving termed Krulak "all heart, all courage, all decency, all honor. I consider it one of the principal privileges of my life that I have known him for 40 years."

Krulak served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he commanded an infantry platoon and earned the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. Working his way up the ranks, he annoyed more than a few colleagues and critics with his brazen style and personality.

During his four years as commandant, Navy and Naval Academy officials bridled at what they termed his interference. He has shown up unannounced at the academy, talked to a renegade professor who criticized the academy in a newspaper article and pressed hard for a greater Marine presence at the academy.

Recently, he was warmly received at an alumni gathering in Washington, where he said the academy must do more to burnish its tarnished image and instill honor and integrity.

The commandant called ethics instruction "mumbo jumbo." Too much on Freud and Kant, he said, and short on "straight talk." He chided academy officials for their "inconsistent decisions" in disciplinary cases, although he praised the current superintendent, Vice Adm. John Ryan.

Krulak defended his remarks in an interview, explaining: "I'm trying desperately to make an already superb institution better."

`An irritant'

Retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, Ryan's predecessor, termed Krulak's comments on ethics development an "oversimplification," noting the honor curriculum is a four-year effort.

Krulak's remarks were spread by fax and e-mail throughout the world, where more than a few saw them as meddling. "It was the same stuff he said before," said one Pentagon official. "He was an irritant."

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