PARRIS ISLAND, S.C.
At this tattoo-tough training base, the Marine Corps is adding a touch of Outward Bound and Sunday School class to the usual rigors of boot camp. Along with pushups and peach-fuzz haircuts, the nation's most elite military service now puts trainees through "problem-solving" group hikes, and aims to teach them basic values and ethics.
How basic? Try the difference between right and wrong.
Better make that the difference between right and wrong - sir! "What we've seen in the last couple of years is young people coming into boot camp with no baseline of right and wrong. We now have to create our own to build this foundation," says Lt. Col. Angie Salinas, a 22-year Marine veteran who leads the 4th Recruit Training Battalion here.
It's all part of a revamped basic training schedule at Parris Island and at the Corps' San Diego recruit depot. Starting this month, the Marines have added two new training features.
One is "The Crucible," a grueling 54-hour endurance test designed to teach loyalty and teamwork to young marines.
Another is one week where drill instructors work intensely with recruits on values and moral character.
Within the week allotted for teaching values and ethics, the Marines encourage drill instructors to counsel with recruits privately. The new focus comes as the military attempts to remedy ethical breakdowns in every service. From marines raping an Okinawan girl to an ongoing Army sex scandal, recent events have threatened to undermine the military's post-Vietnam renaissance and its place as one of a few trusted public institutions. The Marine Corps says its efforts are not related to recent events, but rather are a response to societal changes.
In recent years, the Marines and other services say they've detected a subtle but important change in young people joining the military. Increasingly they've encountered recruits whose sense of right and wrong is grounded in ambiguity. In a few cases, gang members and white supremacists have quietly entered the ranks, complicating the difficult job of turning civilians into close-knit groups of warriors.
Colonel Salinas describes the problem this way: "We've figured out that right and wrong are real foggy right now." These days, she says, a marine caught stealing might rationalize, "Boy, were you stupid for leaving your wallet on your bunk."
The Marines seem to be leading a wave of values introspection among the armed forces. Earlier this month, the Army Times newspaper reported that the Army is about to refocus training on seven "core values," including loyalty, respect, and integrity.
In the future Army personnel could be evaluated on how they adhere to the new values. And in response to a spate of ethics scandals, the Navy recently named a Georgetown University professor to a new "ethics chair" at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Some Marine officials seem to view their new focus as a calling, describing their beloved Corps as a beacon for a society that seems reluctant, or unable, to teach values and ethics at home or school.
Brig. Gen. Jerry Humble, Parris Island's commander, says the new training will prepare marines for "21st-century conflicts" while "making the nation stronger."
The week of values and ethics training culminates with the Crucible, part triathlon and part Outward Bound program. For two days, recruits are expected to work in small groups solving problems while they subsist on modest amounts of food and sleep. The idea is to teach them loyalty and teamwork while encouraging leadership skills among strong and timid alike.
Each Crucible team must work together to complete a series of obstacle courses, marches, and simulated combat drills. The 54-hour marathon is designed so that no team can finish without each team member sacrificing for the group.
During the Crucible's first day, Sgt. Tammy Dawley watched as her 16 recruits performed feats she'd never envisioned. One, Danielle Wendt, hauled a "dead" comrade 100 yards in a fireman's carry, taking initiative Sergeant Dawley had never seen before. A few minutes after Ms. Wendt's battlefield epiphany, Dawley fell backward from a 4-foot high platform as her 16 marines linked arms and caught her, shouting "trust, trust, trust."
Dawley's marines performed well on some tasks and poorly on others. While falling successfully from a raised platform into one another's arms, they had difficulty hauling water jugs and ammo boxes over a simulated battlefield ringed by barbed wire and mud trenches.
It made no matter to their drill instructor. After each challenge, Dawley encouraged teamwork while asking them how they could have performed better as a group. Even the Marines admit they're not sure how to measure the effectiveness of the new training. Others wonder how they can do in a few weeks what parents and school can't in a lifetime. Still, those who designed the new training say it's worth the effort. "We're trying to teach them moral courage, the courage to act on something they see," General Humble says. "We think we can help society."