Academy No. 2 is 1st for Corps

Historic: The new commandant of midshipmen is the only Marine officer to advance so high at the school in its 157 years.

February 02, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Yesterday's interview had scarcely begun when Marine Col. John R. Allen leapt suddenly from his seat in a Naval Academy conference room and marched a group of reporters to a hall honoring fallen sailors.

He had a point to make about moral fiber. And if it meant a breach of interviewing custom, so be it.

Gesturing with an air of quiet intensity to a listing of academy graduates killed in action, he said he asks midshipmen accused of misconduct to choose a name, research how the officer died and write a paper on lessons gleaned from the officer's life.

"I ask the Mids if they think they've broken faith with the people before them," he said, his green eyes glinting behind gold-framed glasses.

Allen, at 48 a lean 6 feet tall, is the academy's new commandant of midshipmen. The post, akin to dean of students at a civilian college, is second in power only to the superintendent. Its holder oversees all non-academic activities at the school, from the debate team to discipline.

In at least one key respect, Allen's selection is historic: He is the first Marine in the school's 157-year history to hold so senior a post. It is a distinction discounted by the academy but celebrated by Marines as long overdue at a school dominated by Navy officers despite its role as an incubator of both Navy and Marine Corps leaders.

"It's been a long time coming," said Lt. Col. Joseph C. Shusko, the executive officer at the Basic School, a Marine training facility in Quantico, Va., which Allen commanded before his move to the Naval Academy. "There were a number of [Marine] officers that should have been in that position before."

As some Marine officials see it, it took an officer of Allen's record to crack the glass ceiling. He graduated from the academy in 1976, returned as a teacher and won an award for top military instructor. He holds multiple master's degrees, has commanded infantry companies, served as military secretary to the Marine Corps commandant and led The Basic School.

"With credentials like that, no one would question the fact that he really is the perfect person," said Thomas V. Draude, a retired Marine brigadier general who as part of an academy study group in the late 1990s pressed for more Marines in top posts.

Academy Superintendent John R. Ryan chose Allen from six candidates - five nominated by senior Navy officials and one, Allen, by the Marines. Ryan said he was won over by Allen's record and by changes that Allen, deputy commandant since April, had introduced to the academy's intensive summer training for new students.

"He had a couple of ideas on what we could do better in plebe summer," Ryan said. "What impressed me was it wasn't Marine-oriented, it was leadership-oriented."

Ryan defended Navy rule at the academy - noting that the school is funded by Navy budgets - and brushed aside the notion that Allen's selection was intended in part to mollify the Marines.

"I didn't go about picking John to pick a first," he said.

Allen's childhood home in the rural Virginia town of Warrenton buzzed with maritime lore.

His father, Joseph Allen, was a Navy seaman aboard the destroyer USS Kearny in 1941 when it was torpedoed in the North Atlantic by a U-boat.

Joseph Allen was fond of telling stories of that day - and other tales of naval heroism - as he drove his son home each evening from John's private high school in Fairfax.

"I grew up listening to stories about Naval Academy graduates," John Allen said. He is the youngest of three siblings and the only one to follow his father into a military career.

Allen entered the academy, climbing to a student leadership post in which he commanded half the 4,000-strong brigade of midshipmen.

As he climbed in the Marine Corps hierarchy, he left an impression at odds with the stereotype of the Marine officer as hard-hearted martinet.

When a young Marine at the Basic School couldn't shoot a rifle with enough accuracy to become a commissioned officer, Allen arranged more than a dozen training sessions because he thought the Marine had just about every other asset for success.

Shusko, the executive officer under Allen at the Basic School, said previous commanders there might have let the Marine wash out after a couple of retraining attempts.

Still, he could be an exacting boss: Shusko recalls walking into the office at The Basic School to find e-mail messages Allen had sent him at 4 a.m.

Allen is married to the former Katherine Ann Glickert. They have two daughters, ages 21 and 17 - neither with military aspirations.

In a group interview yesterday, Allen wore the green Marine Corps uniform that sets him apart in the academy's sea of Navy blue.

He said he is too new to have carved out specific ideas for new programs. But he said he will focus on imbuing midshipmen with a sense of high moral obligation. He wants them to see themselves as "public figures."

As his colleagues see it, Allen brings to spreading that message a fatherly way of connecting with aspiring officers, most less than half his age.

Sgt. Maj. Brian K. Pensak, the senior enlisted person at The Basic School, said he remembers many early morning jogs in which Allen would insist on stopping to chat with young Marines, often asking after a sick wife or child by name.

"You had his undivided attention," Pensak recalled. "Even if you were a 19-year-old Marine, right at that moment, everyone else was unimportant to him."

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