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Tradition of Mess Duty Fading Away : Marine Corps to Hire Civilians

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Flanked by piles of dirty dishes deep in the bowels of a chow hall, Lance Cpl. Jeff Frye looked like anything but a battle-tough Leatherneck preparing to defend his country. It was the 20-year-old Marine’s turn at mess duty and he simply wasn’t enjoying it.

“It’s no fun at all,” Frye said, adjusting a row of plates into formation between the plastic prongs of a green dish rack. “Everyone dreads getting mess duty.”

Frye’s duty at the dishes--like that of his counterparts busing tables or scooping gobs of food onto the plates of hungry enlisted men--has been as much a part of Marine Corps tradition as raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Inglorious as it may seem, mess duty has been with the Marines since this nation’s elite fighting corps was established more than two centuries ago.

But that may end soon.

Camp Pendleton officials hope to replace the enlisted personnel normally saddled with mess duty with civilian workers hired as part of a proposed multimillion-dollar program. The program is awaiting final funding approval from Marine headquarters in Washington.

Nationwide Plan

The change is proposed in conjunction with a move to eliminate mess duty for enlisted personnel at Marine Corps bases across the country. If it gets the final blessing of top Marine Corps officers, the troops at Camp Pendleton could be relieved of mess duty by October.

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In Southern California, civilian cafeteria workers are slated to be brought on board not only at Camp Pendleton but also at the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro in Orange County.

Marine Corps brass contend that the switch will help increase the productivity of their troops by reducing the drain on manpower. Moreover, they say, it should boost morale dramatically.

“My personal view is it’s a big plus,” said Col. Harry Solter, assistant chief of staff for logistics at Camp Pendleton. “We have what amounts to two infantry companies doing mess duty each day. When you put all those people back in the foxhole, so to speak, you’re not only helping to keep them in training but sure eliminating a real source of contention.”

Indeed, like Frye, most Marines assigned to mess duty readily acknowledge that they would prefer doing just about anything else.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” said Frye, a Minnesota native who normally works in the base’s personnel administration office. “You have to work weekends. When holidays fall around, you have to work them, too. It’s not anything I’m going to miss.”

Cpl. Christina Enlow, 20, agreed.

“Nobody’s thrilled to be here,” said Enlow, from Ashtabula, Ohio. “Sure, we get the first food on the line, but it’s nothing to write home about.”

30 Days a Year

About 280 enlisted men and women are switched each day from their normal duties to help wash pots and pans, clean tables, serve food and generally assist in the operation of Camp Pendleton’s 18 mess halls. Low-ranking enlisted personnel typically serve one 30-day stint each year on mess duty.

Selection is based solely on need and not considered as a punishment, Marine officers say. Over the course of a year, more than 3,500 out of the 28,000 Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton draw mess duty.

The hours are, to say the least, long. Mess personnel generally rise by 4:30 a.m. to help begin preparations for breakfast and are finished cleaning up after dinner by about 7 p.m., with breaks between the meals during the day.

While the three other branches of the military all began supplanting enlisted personnel with civilian workers for mess duty after the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps has stubbornly held off making any change until now. As Solter sees it, the switch didn’t come sooner largely because of fiscal concerns among top Corps brass and a feeling that mess duty was part of an enlisted man “paying his dues.”

Generally Favored

Now, however, the proposal to drop mess duty for Marines is almost uniformly accepted by Corps leaders, Solter said. “You might find some old die-hards out there who say they had to do mess duty so others should have to do it,” he said. “Most, though, seem to think it’s a good idea.”

And for devout Marine Corps traditionalists saddened by the passing of mess duty, there remains a last glimmer of hope. While enlisted Marines may soon be spared the ordeal, most new recruits will still be required to serve a one-week stint on mess duty during boot camp.


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