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Marine Trend : Looking for More Good Families

Times Staff Writer

Raymond Fitzhugh was ready to tie the knot. It was 1952 and the young U.S. Marine, fresh out of boot camp, figured it was time to make his sweetheart of three years a bride.

But Fitzhugh soon realized his nuptial dream was not to be.

According to the wisdom of the day, a junior enlisted man was too young, too poor and too busy to marry. If the Marine Corps had wanted you to have a wife, a popular saying went, it would have issued you one.

“In the old days, marriage and a family just weren’t something the Corps wanted on a young boy’s mind,” recalled Fitzhugh, now a sergeant major at the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine base in north San Diego County.

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Because of the roadblocks facing Fitzhugh and other would-be husbands, the Marine Corps historically was a bastion of bachelors, the gritty, fighting man’s force that prided itself on being first to hit the beach. They were the few, the proud, the unmarried.

42% Now Married

But now marriage is almost a standard-issue staple among Marines. In today’s Corps, 42% of the enlisted personnel are married, nearly double the figure for 1970 and a jump of almost 2% in the last six months alone. Three out of four officers are married in the modern Corps, and dependents--spouses, children and some parents--actually outnumber Marines.

The ballooning number of marriages has thrust an all-new mission upon the Marine Corps: caring for families. There are babies to be delivered and new homes to be built, pre-deployment counseling to provide and battered wives to protect.

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This year, the Corps will spend $3.5 million on family-support programs, nearly four times the amount invested in 1981; before that, such programs were virtually non-existent. In some areas, however, the Marines are still struggling to adjust to the swelling dependent population. Base hospitals are reeling under the strain of the new patient load. The wait for family housing can be longer than a year. Child care is woefully inadequate and often beyond the financial reach of those in the lower ranks.

Effect on Combat Readiness

Finally, some old-guard Marine leaders wonder whether the changing complexion of the Corps has affected combat readiness. During a major deployment, they suggest, the burgeoning dependent population would place a heavy burden on the Corps. And married Marines worrying about wives and children could be distracted on the battlefield, making them a less lethal force than one made up of mostly single men.

Marines are not the only military personnel approaching the altar in record numbers. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force all report that matrimony is on the rise, including “member-member” marriages between men and women in uniform.

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“The statistics are really quite amazing,” said Bill Coffin, chief of the Pentagon’s Family Policy Office. “Basically, it seems these people view the military as a good, secure place to raise a family.”

According to Department of Defense statistics, more than 55% of all military personnel are married today, while fewer than one in three had spouses 30 years ago. And although their income is consistently lower, military personnel in every age group are now more likely to be married than their civilian counterparts, a survey by the Center for Demographic Studies has found.

Ruth Ann O’Keefe, who established the Navy’s Family Support Program in 1978 and now heads a similar division for the Army, said the increase in married troops and the Pentagon’s discovery that the spouse plays a key role in a service member’s decision to re-enlist have produced “an astonishing commitment” to aiding families.

“It used to be that the few family programs that existed got reluctant tolerance at best,” O’Keefe said. “Now you’ve got the Army stating--officially, as policy--that child-care services are mission-essential. It’s an incredible, wonderful change in attitude.”

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Traditionally ‘Less Married’

The trend, observers seem to agree, is most striking in the Marine Corps. To begin with, O’Keefe said, the Corps was traditionally “less married” than other branches and has had further to go to respond to the influx of dependents. In addition, the Marines’ reputation as elite warriors--the toughest of the tough--makes their transition to a force of family men all the more dramatic.

Corps officials have not formally targeted reasons for the increase in marriages among their troops, but theories abound. Most military leaders believe that, above all, the increase simply mirrors the renewed popularity of marriage among younger people in the civilian world.

However, steady increases in military pay during the last two decades have made family life more affordable for enlisted personnel in the lower ranks. Today, a married private at the foot of the pay scale earns a monthly salary of $639, plus $583 for food and housing assistance if he chooses to live off base.

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“A 19-year-old Pfc (private first class) sick of the barracks and the chow looks at that and figures, ‘By golly, I can afford to get married,’ ” said Lt. Cmdr. Earl Cardon, a Navy chaplain at Camp Pendleton. “He also knows he can take his wife to the base hospital if she’s sick, buy food at the commissary and so on. There’s a sense of security that makes marriage seem very viable for these boys.”

Other officials speculate that the relaxation of regulations once prohibiting and later discouraging marriage among young enlisted men has helped fuel the increase. Rules forbidding marriage were phased out years ago, but a requirement that Marines seek counseling from their chaplain and commanding officer before getting hitched is still a fresh memory. Just ask Gunnery Sgt. Larry Crutchfield.

“It was 1971, I was a Pfc just about to go off to (Viet) Nam, and I was dying to marry this girl,” recalled Crutchfield, now stationed at Camp Pendleton. “Well, my CO (commanding officer) and the chaplain scared the daylights out of me. They said there was no way I could support a wife (while) making $65 every payday.”

Saved From Disaster

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Under pressure, Crutchfield, then 18, heeded their advice and marched off to war with dreams of marriage upon his return; his girlfriend, however, quit writing him after a month.

“The counseling saved me from disaster,” Crutchfield said. “But today you see guys go into boot camp with a wife and a couple of kids. Times have really changed.”

The increase in Marine families has affected almost all aspects of life in the Corps. But perhaps the most sensitive question evoked by the increasing number of marriages is whether the trend has weakened the Marines’ effectiveness as a weapon of war.

“If you were to go into combat, and you’re a young Pfc, and you’re worried about a wife and a kid or two at home, then your mind is not on the battle,” said Fitzhugh, Camp Pendleton’s top-ranking enlisted man. “When you go into combat, you’ve got to be thinking 100% of yourself, your job, your duties. The distraction of a family could be a problem.”

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Lt. Col. J. P. Leonard, who recently relinquished command of a 300-member service support group based at Camp Pendleton, draws a comparison to the Catholic Church: “Why does the largest, most successful organization in the world not allow its priests to marry? Because it constitutes a distraction? It could.”

Indeed, there is one cadre of Marines--security guards at embassies and other installations--who are not permitted to marry during their 30-month tour. The regulation reflects the Corps’ concern that a family could jar a Marine’s concentration on the typically high-pressure assignments, Leonard said.

But most senior commanders say they do not believe that marriage interferes with a Marine’s performance in battle. And many argue that a married Marine is a more responsible Marine who, as a husband and father, might well have more to fight for.

‘Can’t Tell Them Apart’

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“At one time I believed there would be a difference, that the married guys would look out for themselves and hold back in combat,” said Maj. Ted Bahry, commanding officer of a 650-member Marine support company at Camp Pendleton. “But in Vietnam I found that when the shooting starts, you can’t tell them apart.”

In addition, several officers said married Marines often are better behaved than their single peers. Leonard and other commanders note that the level of non-judicial punishment for minor infractions is lower among married Marines.

“Let’s face it, a Marine who has a family is less likely to go out and raise hell in town than one who doesn’t,” said Lt. Col. David Tomsky, director of the Joint Public Affairs Office at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

Officials in cities bordering Marine bases echo that statement and say they have fewer problems with today’s serviceman, whose behavior also has likely benefited from the Corps’ anti-drug and alcohol campaigns. Downtown Oceanside was for decades a honky-tonk strip of bars and adult entertainment theaters catering to Marines. Today, most of those businesses are gone, forced out by declining patronage and the city’s redevelopment efforts.

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Military police once stationed in Oceanside to help handle disorderly enlisted personnel were pulled out last year after a drop in the city’s crime rate. Police Chief Larry Marshall said the need for the MPs no longer existed because of the “better behaved, higher-quality Marine” on the streets.

One thing is clear: The Pentagon realizes that the potential for family-related distraction during battle exists and thus has pumped millions of dollars into support services designed to minimize that risk.

“Now that (marriage) is an accepted reality that is being addressed at the highest level of all the services, we’re realizing that family issues are critical to readiness,” the Defense Department’s Coffin said. “People with family problems are probably less likely to be ready to fight . . . based on the fact that they’re concerned. We need to help them with those concerns.”

There is another compelling reason to keep a married Marine happy at home. Exit surveys conducted by the military now identify family concerns--rather than low pay--as the primary force behind the decision to leave the service. If the spouse is miserable, it is a good bet the soldier will not re-enlist.

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“The efforts we devote to assisting a Marine in caring for his family in the long run become a cost-savings in terms of retaining high-quality Marines who are already trained,” said Maj. Gen. C. D. Dean, commander of the 1st Marine Amphibious Force at Camp Pendleton. “If a Marine gets the impression he’s not able to adequately provide for his family then we’re going to have to bring in a recruit to take his place.”

The bulk of the family aid emanates from the Corps’ fleet of 19 family service centers, which provide parenting classes, anger management seminars, financial counseling, spouse and child-abuse intervention and a bevy of other programs designed to enhance the Marine family’s quality of life.

Anticipating Problems

The centers emphasize anticipating problems, particularly those related to overseas deployments, according to Lt. Col. Alex Verducci, director of the Corps’ largest family service center at Camp Pendleton.

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“The hardest part about life in the Marine Corps is the separations,” Verducci said. “It used to be that a Marine would leave for a year and bang, all of a sudden his wife’s on her own, playing mommy, daddy, Santa, business manager and all the other roles. We try to help her out and then make the integration easier when her macho Marine husband walks back in the door.” One tool that appears particularly popular is a “telephone tree” that links the wives of a deploying battalion. Anchored by the commanding officer’s wife, the network reduces a spouse’s sense of isolation and can help her tap resources on and off base as she wrestles with her husband’s absence.

Another favorite is a videotaping service that allows a family to send live messages to their loved one while he is overseas. Commanding officers give these and other family service center programs credit for dramatically reducing the number of emergency leaves during deployment.

The centers have another mission as well--preventing the collapse of families due to divorce. Verducci said the base’s Joint Legal Assistance Office performs 60% of all the non-contested dissolutions in northern San Diego County--250 or more a month.

“It’s not something I’m real proud of,” Verducci said. “But remember, we’re talking teen-age marriages. A 17 year old with a 16-year-old wife and a baby. These kids are statistically doomed for failure.”

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Accompanied Tours

The increase in families also has given birth to policy changes in Washington. At one time, Marines were not permitted to bring their families on one-year tours of duty in Okinawa. Then in 1981, a push to make Okinawa a more family-oriented base was launched, and a massive effort to build family quarters began. Today, accompanied tours of Okinawa are common.

In addition, the allowance the Corps provides to assist families with relocation expenses has been increased, and dental benefits were recently extended to dependents.

A more subtle change has evolved from the growing number of marriages as well: The reigning Marine Corps attitude toward families has softened, veteran officers say.

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“People never used to be sympathetic to what went on outside the gate,” recalled Fitzhugh, who divorced 15 years ago and has not remarried because he believes that a Marine’s life is too hard on a wife. “You either got rid of her or she had to shape up. But now we’ve got a different, more sensitive Marine Corps.”

Wives of longtime Marines confirm the change--and welcome it.

“Things are enormously better for wives today,” said Elaine Tutterow, a counselor at Camp Pendleton and an officer’s wife. “In the old days, you were expected to take care of yourself and keep your mouth shut. You were second. It’s not that you were neglected, you just didn’t really exist in the eyes of the Corps.”

Despite their best efforts and laudable intentions, Marine leaders concede that there are battles that have yet to be won.

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Housing Shortage

Base housing--or the lack of it--is a prime example. At Camp Pendleton, a junior enlisted Marine faces a 15- to 18-month wait for a two-bedroom home; officers can wait up to 20 months.

“By the time some guys get base housing, they’ve got a new set of orders,” Verducci said. “The problem is, housing is in the budget fighting with missiles for funds. When the priorities are examined, housing units don’t measure up.”

And the housing that is available can be substandard.

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Sterling Homes, a dilapidated complex housing 600 families at Camp Pendleton, is particularly notorious. Constructed in 1941, the homes were intended as temporary shelter for workers building the Marine base. But they have remained the primary quarters for junior enlisted personnel with families. The average age of wives living in the complex is 17.

The drab, sand-colored structures lack showers, and fewer than one-third of the units have telephones. Barbecues and other possessions are chained to the porch posts; clotheslines are the only landscaping.

“The plumbing is so old that when somebody up the hill gets a clogged drain, you can bet it’ll hit you before the day’s out,” said Melanie Hurst, 24.

Base officials are hardly proud of the complex, which Verducci calls “slum housing.” In 1987, Sterling Homes residents will be relocated to new units now under construction.

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Another chorus of complaints among Marine dependents concerns medical care. Base Naval hospitals, designed to treat the broken bones, bullet wounds and infectious diseases of the active-duty man, have been hard pressed to handle the escalating number of pregnant women and feverish children coming through their doors.

Worst hit have been the obstetric and gynecological wards, under siege from both Marine wives and enlisted women, who are no longer discharged if they become pregnant.

At Camp Lejeune, the number of visits to the hospital’s obstetric-gynecological clinic has risen by about 700% during the last five years. Until recently, Camp Pendleton’s three staff obstetricians were delivering 200 babies a month. Now the hospital is under orders to keep that number at 100, meaning only active-duty women and dependents with emergency complications are admitted.

Pediatrics also are the target of criticism; and again the issue is access. Lance Cpl. Connie L. Johnson, whose children are prone to ear infections, said it can take weeks to get an appointment for treatment at Camp Pendleton’s hospital, which has four pediatricians.

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“I’ve got it better than most, because my husband’s a (Navy) corpsman, and the Navy takes care of their own,” Johnson said. “But for some of the dependents, it’s a big, big problem.”

Dependents denied treatment on base are insured for civilian care under the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services. But meeting the deductible can be difficult for families in the lower ranks, and there is frequently a gap between a doctor’s charges and what the program will pay.

For example, a sergeant at Camp Lejeune whose quadruplets required extensive care in a neonatal unit was recently hit with a $50,000 bill. So far, the medical program has agreed to cover only $13,000.

Child-Care Centers

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Finally, the burgeoning dependent population--which includes the children of nearly 1,300 single-parent Marines--has forced the Corps to establish child-care centers. There are five at Camp Pendleton, three at Camp Lejeune; the wait for a spot at both bases averages six months.

“Child care is arguably our biggest single problem,” Verducci said, “and frankly it’s inadequate, totally inadequate, in terms of space.”

Despite these nagging troubles, Corps officials insist that they will succeed in blending the spiraling number of Marine families with the mission of the force. In fact, they say, they are already off to a fine start.

“There is no organization in the world that does a better job of taking care of its families than the U.S. Marine Corps,” Maj. Bahry boasted. “And in the framework of today’s Corps, it just has to be that way.

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“Because we’ve got to know that when we go marching off, our loved ones will have somewhere to turn.”


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