News Analysis: Slating system hits snag

Sergeants major notice intervention by anonymous general
By John Hoellwarth - Staff writer
Posted : April 02, 2007

Late last year, Sgt. Maj. Ralph Drake was tapped by a board of his peers to become the senior enlisted adviser at Marine Corps Forces Pacific in Hawaii. But Drake didn’t want to go.

His reason for turning it down, according to a spokeswoman, was that he should be allowed to stay at his current billet — at Training and Education Command in Quantico, Va. — for a full two years. Before going to TECom, Drake had accepted his fair share of short-tour orders, moving three times — Okinawa to Camp Lejeune, N.C., then to Quantico — within the last four years.

So rather than move to Hawaii, he did what Marines of his rank and position who refuse orders are expected to do: He put in his retirement paperwork.

What happened next has reverberated throughout the tightknit community of active-duty and recently retired sergeants major. According to several sources, a general officer canceled Drake’s retirement and he was instead assigned as the senior enlisted adviser to Marine Corps Installations-East at Camp Lejeune. He is scheduled to take over for Sgt. Maj. Charles Tucker there in April.

Active-duty and recently retired sergeants major are saying that this is a case of a general meddling in the closed-loop affairs of sergeants major. Under the system in place, sergeants major pick where sergeants major go. And if you don’t want to go where you’re assigned, you retire. End of story. Generals aren’t supposed to parachute in and change that.

“When general officers involve themselves and use their authority, it reinserts the unfriendly idea of them picking and assigning their own sergeant major. It destroys the integrity of the slating process and defeats its intent,” said Sgt. Maj. Eduardo Leardo, who worked for the Marine Corps inspector general before going on terminal leave in late January.

There’s another consequence. Forcing a Marine who refused orders to finish his contract at another assignment clogs advancement in the sergeant major food chain and causes “a ripple effect” that forces the slating board to move around other sergeants major with short-notice orders to accommodate the Marine who stays put, according to some of the Corps’ senior enlisted Marines.

It also creates a leadership challenge in the new command. How can the sergeant major who refused orders and gets an alternate assignment — even if he didn’t ask for it — expect his Marines to accept their own orders?

“If the Marine Corps has seen fit to send you to a job because you’re the best man for the job, then what kind of example do you set for the young Marines by refusing orders and getting orders somewhere else?” asked Sgt. Maj. Robin Dixon, who retired in February after serving as Marine Corps Forces Reserve’s senior enlisted Marine.

Despite interviews with 10 active-duty and recently retired sergeants major and a number of Corps spokesmen with knowledge of the assignment change, one thing remains unclear: Who put the brakes on Drake’s retirement?

Officials with Manpower and Reserve Affairs at Quantico would not answer questions for the record or confirm which of Manpower’s Marines, if any, intervened on Drake’s behalf.

Manpower’s Sgt. Maj. Federico Perez sits on the slating board with the seven senior sergeants major under Sgt. Maj. John Estrada, sergeant major of the Marine Corps. Perez’s name has been listed as a point of contact on every all-Marine message about the board since it assigned its first three Marines to general officers in 2001.

He wouldn’t speak over the phone about the board’s deliberations on the assignment and re-assignment of Drake, but said during a Jan. 19 interview at his Quantico office, “We get orders, we execute orders and we move forward.”

Drake refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this story but did answer questions through TECom’s spokeswoman, Capt. Teresa Ovalle.

She said Drake didn’t want his orders to North Carolina, either.

“He said it’s not a billet he would strive to do, but he understands that these are the orders he has to fulfill because somebody at Manpower went to bat to keep him in in the first place,” she said.

The fact that someone went to bat for Drake — regardless of whether Drake wanted that person to — is what has other sergeants major feeling raw.

Leardo said Drake’s case suggests that “the slating process has been tarnished or basically compromised” by the intervention of a general on behalf of a specific Marine.

Estrada said the Corps’ leaders should respect the slating process for the same reason they respect their own enlisted advisers.

“If you look at the individuals who are on the slating process, they are the most senior,” he said. “If we have the confidence in their ability to work at that level, we do trust their confidence that they are making the right decisions.”
Closed-loop system

Sergeants major can’t be promoted, so they climb the food chain by working under progressively senior officers at progressively higher echelons.

They start at the battalion level, working for lieutenant colonels, then move up to full-bird commands if retirement doesn’t come first. But many go the distance, hitting the 30-year service limitation under generals at the highest levels.

Assigning who goes to what general used to depend on which general wanted whom. But the Corps needs generals to get the best-qualified Marine, not the best connected, so then-Commandant Gen. James Jones authorized sergeants major to slate themselves beginning in February 2000.

When the sergeant major slate was created, its intent was “to ensure our Marines receive the best possible senior [staff noncommissioned officer] leadership and eligible sergeants major receive fair and equitable consideration,” according to the Corps-wide message that announced it.

“Because of those sergeants major back then agreeing to slate individuals when they are eligible, not when they’re asked, that’s how the sergeants major went about getting the best man for the job,” Sgt. Maj. Evans McBride said in a telephone interview from his MarForPac office in Hawaii.

Before that message came out, it was not uncommon for junior sergeants major to move up more rapidly than more senior Marines by ingratiating themselves with a commander on the rise, Leardo said.

“This issue mounted a stigma of unfairness among the masses, especially those who were senior and faced a glass ceiling at the colonel level,” he said. “In other words, it created the ‘good ol’ boy’ network.”

Each sergeant major interviewed by Marine Corps Times about the current slating process said it ensures an element of equitable treatment the old way of doing business lacked.

Dixon said he was one of the three Marines re-assigned by the board’s first slate.

“It gives sergeants major a fair chance to get looked at for working for general officers,” he said. “It works well. It’s the best way to assign sergeants major.”

“I would not be the MarForPac sergeant major today if it wasn’t for the slate process,” McBride said. “I love it, and I hope it never goes away.”

Estrada said Drake’s case is the first time the slating board’s recommendations did not go through the chain of command unchanged.

“Maybe we didn’t do a good job advertising it to commanders and sergeants major out there,” Estrada said.

Commandant Gen. James Conway appears to agree, releasing an all-Marine message at the beginning of January that reiterated the slating process and added a couple of “improved steps,” according to AlMar 007/07.

The new message changes the policy that Marines must have two years left on their contract to be slated by stipulating that Manpower would decide how much obligated service was required for each assignment.

Conway’s spokesman, Lt. Col. T.V. Johnson, said the commandant takes “a personal interest” in the assignments of senior enlisted Marines and that his intent with the message “was to reiterate to everyone, ‘Hey, we need to adhere to the process.’ ”