The Marine Corps announced Wednesday that it no longer would permit married persons to enlist after Sept. 30, 1995, but it rescinded the policy a few hours later, apparently after a protest by President Clinton.
The order, conveyed in a message issued last week in the name of Marine Corps Commandant Carl E. Mundy Jr., declared that the ban had become necessary because too many young Marines were experiencing failed marriages, which in turn was affecting their readiness and morale.
It also directed that Marines who want to get married inform their commanding officers of their intentions and attend "educational awareness" lectures designed to point out the dangers of early marriages.
Mundy was reported to have later denied that he had signed--or even seen--the directive. Under military custom, messages or letters frequently are sent out under commanders' names by subordinates who are empowered to do so. Mundy was not available for comment Wednesday night.
But the announcement no sooner became public knowledge Wednesday than it ran into trouble with Clinton, who apparently had not been told of the policy change and was "astonished," according to White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.
Members of Congress also were taken by surprise. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the order "outrageous" and expressed doubt that Mundy had the authority to issue it.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who said that he too had been unaware of the Marine Corps' policy change before it was formally announced, immediately ordered Mundy to rescind the order and submit the entire proposal for review, if he still wants to propose it.
The Pentagon issued a statement late Wednesday night saying that "the Secretary of Defense has instructed the U.S. Marine Corps to withdraw its policy, which would have kept married people from enlisting in the Marines" and that "the Marine Corps has done so."
It said Aspin had also directed "that any new policy proposals on this matter be subject to full departmental review."
Nevertheless, the incident provoked another military-related embarrassment for the Administration, just as Clinton was announcing his nomination of Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili to replace Gen. Colin L. Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Apart from the controversy the plan would have stirred among enlisted personnel, Defense Department officials said Aspin was concerned that the restrictions actually would damage morale in the Marine Corps and, ultimately, undermine military readiness.
As described in the directive, the new policy would have limited the number of married recruits to 4% by Oct. 1 of this year and 2% by Oct. 1, 1994, and would have prohibited married people from enlisting at all after Oct. 1, 1995.
Martin Binkin, a military manpower expert at the Brookings Institution, said the directive also would have opened the door to major litigation that would only add to the legal problems the armed forces are likely to face following the new ruling on gays in the military.
While endorsing the proposal from "a national-security and a cost-effectiveness viewpoint," Binkin pointed out that "obviously, you would think that this would not resonate well in the Clinton Administration."
It was not immediately clear how Mundy would fare in the wake of Wednesday's flap. Although Pentagon officials did not address the issue, presidents have fired service chiefs for comparable slip-ups.
Defense Department officials said only that a relatively small number of active-duty Marines would have been affected by the new policy. About 5% of enlisted Marines are married.
But the message noted that the number of new Marines who have chosen to marry has increased dramatically--40% of all first-termers are married, it said.
"The problems associated with a failing marriage, a marriage whose fabric is being torn apart by our operational deployment tempo--or the difficulty of making ends meet on a junior military salary, in locations where the cost of living is especially high--can be overwhelming to a young Marine and his family," the message said.
Defense Department officials noted that the second part of the order was only a "codification" of existing policy. Under current rules, a commander may provide counseling for a Marine who is about to be married. The new one would have required such action.
Aspin took pains Wednesday to insist that his order was not intended to kill the new proposal. It seemed unlikely, however, that the plan would be revived anytime soon.
Military experts said the Marine Corps is plagued with proportionately more problems from failing marriages among younger enlistees because, more than any other service, it requires its members to deploy unexpectedly and spend long periods away from home.
It was a standard requirement in all the armed services through the 1950s that enlisted personnel had to obtain their commanding officers' permission before getting married. The rule was relaxed in the late 1960s.
Capt. Mary Baldwin, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said early marriages are "creating tremendous problems for the Marines, for Marine families and for the Corps itself. And for those Marines who are already married, we must begin to give them the tools to become more successful."
Reaction at Camp Pendleton in Southern California was mixed.
"I think it should be up to the individual Marine to be responsible enough to be married," said Cpl. Daniel Martinez of Sweetwater, Tex. "Just as they should be responsible outside."
Martinez said he has been married for 2 1/2 years to Cynthia Martinez, who stood by his side and echoed his views.
"The pressures are there," she said. "But you have to know when you marry a Marine that there will be hardships . . . and how to handle the hardships."
For the Martinez couple, hardships have been particularly acute and offer an illustration of the kinds of stresses cited in making the announcement.
In 2 1/2 years of marriage, Martinez said he has been away from his wife for two full years, having journeyed to Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Honduras.
However, not all of Camp Pendleton's Marines were pleased to hear that the White House had put the brakes on the new policy.
Sgt. Dave Wikler, who has been married for four years, said: "They shouldn't have reversed it. Recruits are too low of a rank to handle the pressure at work and at home."
Sgt. Matt Hevezi, who is based at Camp Pendleton, said he had been in the Corps for six years and married for the last three years.
"Before I got married, I would get off work and go to the barracks, and my time was my own," Hevezi said. "But when you're married and you get off work, your day is, in some respects, just beginning, especially when there's children."
Hevezi and his wife have a son.
"And then when you're deployed," he said, "you're leaving all of those responsibilities you share with your wife to one person--your wife, who may feel overwhelmed, not to mention how you feel being away. I think the Corps just became increasingly concerned with all this."
Lance Cpl. Steve Tyler said he favors discouraging marriage for new recruits because "95% of the people who come into the Marines are 18 to 19 years old, fresh out of high school" and not ready for the responsibility.
Calling the Corps' basic $200-$400 housing allowance for married couples an impetus to tie the knot, Tyler said: "A lot of Marines see that as an incentive, though it doesn't work out that way. They don't realize that the money is going to go to pay the bills--it's not drinking money, or party money."
Pine reported from Washington and Granberry from San Diego. Times staff writers David Lauter in Washington and Chris Kraul at Camp Pendleton also contributed to this story.