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In a push to streamline the selection process for the Marine Corps' high-profile and demanding special duty assignments, the service is paring down the billets that qualify as special duty to just three and planning major rewrites to the assignment manual.

At the guidance of Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, the Corps is rolling out a new strategy in which only the jobs of recruiter, drill instructor, and Marine Security Guard detachment commander fall under the category of special duty assignments.

The roles of combat instructor, guard with Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, and Marine Security Guard watchstander are being moved into a new category of "Type 1" screenable billets with a condensed screening process and potential changes to assignment criteria and incentives.

The major changes will begin to take effect in January 2018 as the Marine Corps begins the service-wide screening process for the next group of Marines assigned to SDAs, according to a Marine administrative message released Wednesday.

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The results will begin to be seen in the October 2018 SDA classes, said Col. Rudy Janiczek, Head of Enlisted Assignments for the Marine Corps' Manpower Management Division. A "sundowning" process will ensure that no Marines currently serving in SDAs or selected for them will see any changes as the Marine Corps executes the shake-up.

In an interview with Military.com, Janiczek said the current special duty assignment process locks Marines selected for screening into an 18-month hold in which they cannot deploy with their units or even be reassigned locally.

According to numbers provided by the Corps, the number of Marines who get locked into this screening process each year is not insignificant: an average of 8,600, or nearly 5 percent of the entire active-duty force. Making the planned cuts to the special duty assignment category will limit the screening process to an annual 5,230 Marines, a reduction of 40 percent.

"We've got a lot of billets currently categorized as SDAs and it affects a lot of our careerists and it does have some impact on the operating forces," Janiczek said. "By recategorizing these without completely disincentivizing ... I can screen for basically the same types of things using a differently protocol for doing that, select quality people, and make these assignments in a much more efficient way."

For the billets being moved into a new category -- Marine security guard watchstander, combat instructor, and Marine Corps security forces guard -- the screening time will shrink to several months, he said, minimizing Marines' time on the sidelines.

Incentives Under Evaluation

The jobs categorized today as special duty assignments come with a unique array of challenges and benefits. Some, such as Marine security guard and recruiter, entail more independent assignments to regions typically removed from a larger Marine Corps unit. They require a three-year commitment and can come with specific restrictions on medical condition, family status, and even number and placement of tattoos.

But they also bring special perks and incentives. SDA Marines are entitled to additional monthly pay, which varies based on billet. Most SDAs also come with their own ribbon in recognition of service. And promotion authorities are given special guidance to consider service in special duty assignments as a positive factor for promotion.

There will likely still be incentives attached to the new "Type 1" category of billets, Janiczek said. But most of the details haven't been ironed out.

Ribbons for eligible billets that have been reclassified will likely still be awarded, he said.

As far as the pay, it's a little less clear. Details will be released in future Marine Corps messages as the service evaluates the billets and rewrites the manual, and it's possible there will be changes. The category of pay for the reclassified billets will change from SDA pay to something like "assignment incentive pay," Janiczek said.

"We're going to try to line that up thoughtfully, carefully and thoroughly, because those duties are important, and should be incentivized," he said. "... You can kind of lean on, you're going to be incentivized."

As to the promotability boost built into special duty assignments, Janiczek said officials would evaluate promotion guidance to make sure it was fair. But he stressed that there are other avenues available to Marines to improve chances of promotion.

"Notably, the promotion precepts that I have seen also mention the versatility of a Marine in terms of doing assignments, not limited to just kind of being in the battalion," he said.

The Reclassified Billets

Among the most interesting changes in the new shake-up is the decision to separate the SDA category of "Marine Security Guard" -- the enlisted troops responsible for safeguarding documents and personnel at U.S. embassies around the world -- into two categories: watch stander and detachment commander. Watch standers, the actual guards, tend to be more junior, in ranks of corporal and below, while detachment commanders are staff noncommissioned officers and serve in a more supervisory role.

The decision to keep detachment commander as an SDA and reclassify watch standers brings the roles in line with other SDAs, which are typically reserved for more seasoned Marines.

"It's never been exactly on par anyway, because the young Marines that go off and do that are just at a different place in their Marine Corps career," Janiczek said.

Watch standers should be able to go out for another special duty assignment later on in their career, he added.

As for combat instructors, who teach at the Marines' East and West Coast schools of infantry, and members of Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, who guard nuclear ships and weapons, both draw almost exclusively from the infantry community, Janiczek said.

"[Drill instructors], recruiters, and Marine security guard detachment commanders perform exclusively outside their [military occupational specialty], and that's kind of an important distinction in terms of those duties," he said. "All of those things are factors going in this direction."

In addition, he said, the billets the service selected to remain as SDAs had a common factor: they are public-facing to a certain extent and require lengthy screening to ensure Marines with the right background and temperament are chosen.

"There are some things we have to look at very carefully before we put a recruiter out on the street, as opposed to someone that's working within the confines of the Marine Corps," he said.

More Changes

The just-released Marine administrative message also reclassified other billets for which the Marine Corps has additional screening, grouping them in newly created categories. The Type-1 category will also include reserve unit inspector-instructors, staff non-commissioned officer academy faculty instructors, curriculum developers, and formal schools instructors.

Another category, Type-2 billets, will include a wide spectrum of duties that require special selection and typically an application process: congressional fellowship SNCOs, foreign area officer SNCOs, Marine Corps shooting team competitors, equal opportunity advisers, SNCO degree completion program participants, and instructors for the Force Fitness Readiness Center and the Martial Arts Center of Excellence.

"We're putting an umbrella over these programs, to talk about them somewhat comprehensively," Janiczek said.

It's also possible that tour lengths for some newly reclassified assignments will change. Until now, SDAs have typically entailed a three-year commitment. That will likely continue for recruiters, Marine security guard detachment commanders, and first-tour drill instructors, Janiczek said. Other billets are getting another look.

"If you are assigned to the school of infantry, you probably are going to have some Marines that need to stay for three years so they can get enough seniority to be a senior instructor. But maybe not everybody does," he said. "We'll try to build some flexibility into that, and then you'll have a good, well-trained Marine go back out into the [operating forces] a little bit sooner, and go serve as a squad leader or other unit leader in the infantry."

Last year, the Marine Corps leaders started down this path by reducing tour-length commitments for second-tour drill instructors from three years to two as they worked to recruit more of these experienced DIs.

Special Again

All of these changes are taking place amid service struggles to recruit Marines for special duty assignments.

Marine Corps Times reported last year that the Marines were rolling out new volunteer rules for SDAs, allowing those who put in for special duty to have sway in choosing their assignment.

"After a period of some twelve years of combat operations, we have an entire generation of Marines who are not familiar with special duty assignments, who do not understand or consider special duty assignments as a necessary component of what we would consider to be a successful career," Maj. Gen. Mark Brilakis, then deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, told the publication.

Notable exceptions are Marine security guard watch standers and Marine Corps Security Forces guards, which get most of their annual assignments in the form of accessions, from recruits who enlist for these positions, according to data provided by the Marine Corps.

With actual special duty assignments revised to three and other assignments requiring special screening grouped into separate categories, it's possible the remaining SDAs will get more attention from enlisted Marines and even prompt more volunteerism, an outcome Marine leaders would prefer.

"If everything is screened the same way and assigned the same way and the huge population is sitting on the same list, are they all really special duty assignments?" said Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman for Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

With these changes, "special duty is once again special, if you will," she said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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The Marine attaché (MARA) is a strategic enabler who plays a crucial role in overseas operations but whose role is not widely known or understood by those who have not served as or worked with Embassy country teams. The typical MAGTF officer may not know of, or have had much engagement with, attachés or the program itself. HQMC Intelligence Department is actively working to remedy that lack of understanding in order to advertise the program to officers of all MOSs who may be interested in working with the Defense Attaché System (DAS). The purpose of this article is to provide background on the attaché program, specify where Marines can serve as attachés, and explain the roles that MARAs fill and the responsibilities that attachés have as they fill these diplomatic billets working with the Department of State (DOS), other elements of the DOD, the interagency, and foreign partner nations.

The Marine Corps participates in the DAS by filling 33 major or lieutenant colonel overseas billets. The Corps also fills 14 enlisted billets, known as operations coordinators (OpsCos) or operations NCOs (Ops NCOs), which are staff sergeant or gunnery sergeant assignments. The majority of the billets are 2- or 3-year accompanied assignments, although several are as short as 12 months and unaccompanied (e.g., Iraq or Pakistan for officers, and Tunisia for enlisted Marines). For locations of MARA and OpsCo/NCO billets, see Figure 1.

MARAs stationed at embassies around the globe have four main responsibilities:

1. Represent the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) and the Armed Forces of the United States generally, and the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) and the Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC) specifically.

2. Serve as military advisors to the U.S. Ambassador, other U.S. government officials, and host-nation officials.

3. Report on in-country and regional political-military activities.

4. Support U.S. military theater security cooperation and security assistance programs in the assigned country, as well as coordinate access to host-nation leaders and facilities.1

Specific duties and responsibilities depend on the structure of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) in the MARA’s assigned country as well as guidance from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), DOD and DOS, and the situation in the country in which the MARAs are assigned.

The Marine Corps’ Director of Intelligence (DIRINT) is the Marine Corps attaché program manager and is therefore involved in the selection, training, and time on station for MARAs. The selection process is a lengthy and competitive process in which Marine officers are evaluated as MAGTF officers first and as individuals with proven language, regional expertise, and culture (LREC) skills second.


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The Marine Corps and DIA strive to select Marine officers who can serve as critical enablers that provide situational awareness of host-nation opportunities and challenges. Those officers should be able to operate in ambiguous situations with little to no oversight to achieve theater and national objectives. Due to the nature of an attaché’s position, he has placement and access to pivotal resources, regional military capabilities and key players within the assigned nation, and the U.S. Embassy, which could allow Marine Corps leadership to leverage their regional, cultural, and government contacts to facilitate Marine Corps activities and objectives through mission planning, force protection, operations, and logistics. These billets are critical in maintaining relationships with allies and regional partners. Experience has shown that we cannot surge trust.

Each year, in the January to February timeframe, the Intelligence Department prepares and the Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs (DC, M&RA) releases a Marine administrative (MARADMIN) message to advertise upcoming billet openings and solicit applications for the program. The MARADMIN specifies all the information an applicant will need to provide as well as where to go for additional guidance or assistance. The deadline for applications is normally four weeks prior to the convening of the selection board. Interested officers should contact their primary MOS monitor to discuss timing and career impact if they are interested in the program.

The selection board convenes during August, normally after the completion of the Command Screening Board and is comprised of lieutenant colonels and colonels from various MOSs from across the MAGTF. The most competitive applicants are in the top of their peer groups and normally possess proven language skills based on a Defense Language Proficiency Test. Many have previous experience working with DOS or DOD policy and usually have an advanced degree related to international affairs, regional studies, or history. Although these are the typical qualifications, they are by no means prerequisites for selection. The board considers Marines as a whole to determine their ability to carry out the duties as a MARA and represent the Corps overseas.

MARA boards take family matters into consideration as the family plays an important role as part of the Embassy team overseas. Perhaps the most important consideration is family stability as MARA assignments are extremely challenging and are not typical 0730 to 1630 assignments. Many nights and evenings include social engagements, dinners, and in-country travel, along with delegation support that can take the MARA away from the family even more so than a normal assignment. Underlying family issues will only be exacerbated during a challenging overseas assignment such as this. Marines with family members who are enrolled in the exceptional family member program are eligible to apply, but selection and placement will be highly contingent upon successful overseas medical screening and adequate medical support for the family’s needs overseas.

Upon completion of the selection board, the Intelligence Department routes the results of the board to the SECNAV, via DC, M&RA and the CMC for approval. Once the results are personally approved by the SECNAV, the Intelligence Department prepares a MARADMIN, which M&RA releases, that identifies the primary selectees by country and those selected as alternates. While the Intelligence Department strives to have the MARADMIN published as quickly as possible, the results are normally released in the November or December timeframe.

Once selected and approved to serve as MARAs, selectees must accept or decline their assignment and coordinate with the Intelligence Department and Manpower Management Officer Assignments for orders for all training. At this point in the process, Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MCIA) in Quantico becomes extremely important to future MARAs as MCIA plays a critical role in the day-to-day administration of the MARA program. Training includes the 20-week long Joint Military Attaché School (JMAS) for all selectees at Bolling Air Force Base in Anacostia, MD, and language training for most. If required, MARAs will receive language training through Defense Language Institute–East. (Several MARA assignments such as London, Canberra, and Singapore do not require foreign language proficiency). Language training can range from 26–64 weeks, depending on the difficulty of the language. During JMAS, future attachés from all branches of the Service learn about the political-military activities in their assigned countries, how to write reports, anti-terrorism driving, and etiquette.

During the future MARA’s time in the DC area, additional opportunities will help prepare those selected for their future assignments. Selectees will spend a week at MCIA for “service week” where they will hear from regional analysts and administrative experts who will assist when the MARAs are on station. They will also take part in a Naval Attaché Day at the Pentagon where they will have the opportunity to hear from senior naval leadership such as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, the Director of Naval Intelligence, and the DIRINT. Selectees will coordinate an office call with the DIRINT at some point to discuss their training and their role as MARAs. Other opportunities include briefings and orientation with DIA analysts, DOS Bureau of Intelligence (INR), and other similar organizations in the National Capital Region.

Upon completion of JMAS and any required language training, selectees are prepared for a permanent change of station overseas to become MARAs. While on station, MARAs are under operational control of DIA and administrative control of MCIA. There will be many times during their service overseas when the program coordinator at MCIA will work with MARAs regarding orders, fitness reports, travel claims, etc. Additionally, HQMC Intelligence Department is increasing its interaction with MARAs and working to expand the interaction between MARAs, Marine Forces, MEFs, and deployed MAGTFs.

Although under operational control of DIA, MARAs remain an extension of the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE). As such, MARAs will be expected to develop the Intelligence Enterprise’s awareness of the political-military situation in country and develop or execute security cooperation or security assistance exercises being conducted. Attachés’ geographic placement and regional expertise could greatly benefit Marine Forces and deployed MAGTFs, particularly MEUs, SPMAGTF–CRs, and the enhancement of DOD policy.

In the end, MARAs not only execute a crucial mission to build, maintain, or enhance relationships with DOS, other Services, and the interagency community, but they also help build, maintain, or enhance partnerships with the host nation and its military forces. Serving as an extension of the MCISRE, their reporting from the edges of the globe has been of incalculable value. As a facilitator for Marine Corps’ operations, MARAs have been highly effective at enabling both planned and contingency deployments overseas in a variety of situations, such as the “pivot to the Pacific.” These assignments can be extremely challenging, insightful, and professionally broadening for Marines.

With only 33 officer and 14 enlisted billets, opportunities are limited and career timing is crucial. The ideal time to apply for an assignment is when serving in one’s primary MOS in the Operating Forces. With application, selection, training, and time on station, a MARA could be out of his primary MOS and “away from the fleet” for up to five years. Because of the importance of maintaining credibility in one’s primary MOS, MARAs should plan to return to their primary MOS immediately after their overseas assignment. It is highly recommended that officers complete professional military education for the next higher grade via non-residence to satisfy that requirement in the event that they are not able to attend a resident course. Those interested should contact their monitor to discuss the timing and potential impact of an attaché tour. If the timing supports it, they should then contact the Intelligence Department for details on future opportunities.

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