An 'Extremist,' and Proud of It

The head of the U.S. Marine Corps will leave behind a legacy of outspoken defense of Marine traditions when he retires Sept. 1. Known also for his unabashed embrace of his evangelical Christian faith, he spoke recently with Register correspondent Jim Malerba.

Malerba: How long was your career in the Marines?

Krulak: I spent 35 years as a Marine and four years as a midshipman at the Naval Academy. I went into the academy with the idea I would make the service a career, and probably with the Marines. When I came out of my first tour in Vietnam, I had been wounded, and that certainly affects your life. I was married and wanted children. After that first tour I talked with my wife about getting out. In fact, I interviewed with a couple of companies. In the end, I said no and stayed in the service. I ended up back in Vietnam and got wounded again, but I never regretted that decision.

What medals did you receive as a result of your two tours of Vietnam?

I got the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry and the Combat Action Ribbon. I served in Vietnam in 1965 – 1966 and 1969 – 1970.

How did you motivate the men you led in Vietnam?

You had to do it by example, by leading from the front. You could not expect or demand of your Marines something you were unwilling to give. I tried the best I could to lead from the front. I tried not to have them make sense out of the war. You're not sitting there having political or military debates over the validity of the conflict. You're there to accomplish the mission you've been given with the least loss of life. You had to have everyone pulling on the same oar, so to speak.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Ever since I've been a Marine I've done what I call leadership by walking — kicking boxes, if you will. Basically, that means getting out as often as possible, at least once or twice a day, and lit erally getting down and talking to my Marines, to find out what's on their minds, learn their concerns and try to help and encourage them. It's important. People have to know they are important as individuals, not just as Marines. They are humans who need to be treated with dignity and respect. Age, religion or gender doesn't enter into it. They deserve to be treated with respect.

What principles are the Marine Corps built on?

I think the Marine Corps has always been built on two touchstones. One is the touchstone of valor, whether you're talking about Iwo Jima, Okinawa … or Kuwait City. It's an ethos of the warrior who, when called, will put on his helmet and flak jacket. He's going to fight, and he's going to win. And he's going to guarantee that. We've always had another touchstone, and that's the touchstone of values. It's the belief that Marines are good for the country. They hold to high, almost spiritual standards. Marines believe that dignity and respect for their fellow Marine is key. It means to take care of each other, watching out for their fellow Marine. That's what we've always been. We've raised the standards of what it is to be a Marine, above the Department of Defense standards, and even above the former Marine Corps standards. We have a tougher, harder, more values-based Marine today.

A formerArmy official called the Marines “extremists,” and your response was right to the point.

Yes. I said the Marines are extremely fit, extremely faithful and extremely patriotic. That, in my mind, makes them “extremists” in the highest sense of the word.

How did you parents help shape your Christian values?

I come from a military family, and my dad was a military officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The first thing I'd say about my early life and my Christian beliefs is that we went to church every Sunday. It was part and parcel of life in the Krulak household. We were Episcopalians. My father was not always around, especially during World War II and Korea, so in many ways my mother had a profound impact not only on me but also on my two brothers. She really provided a strong foundation in religious and value systems. Together, my parents made an unbelievable team of stressing, above all, a value system that says integrity is Job 1, and there was a faith we all held dear. There was no beating religion into our heads; it was just part of our life. My two brothers are now Episcopal ministers. One was a Navy chaplain and one was a Marine for 15 years.

Did becoming a born-again Christian change you in terms of your leadership style or interpersonal style?

As a Marine, in an environment where competition is key to many of the things you do, becoming a born-again Christian released me, in many ways, from the concerns of the competition. I knew my future was in God's hands, and that if I did the best I could, with the tools he gave me, he would reward me. He rewards people who work hard to follow him, so the issues that used to plague me, such as whether I would be promoted, get selected for school or whether I would get to some duty assignment, all those pretty much took a back seat. I never really worried about them. That allowed me to concentrate on the things I considered far more important — leading Marines, doing what was right for all the right reasons. That all became much easier.

You've been a leader in the fight against adultery in the service. How did that issue arise?

There was a trial balloon floated by the Department of Defense that would have changed the article in the Uniform Code of Military Justice concerning adultery, by adding a sentence at the beginning of that article that would have read, “Not every act of adultery is punishable under this article.” When I read that, I could not believe what I was reading. When queried about it by The Washington Times, I very vocally said: Not on my watch. The Marine Corps will not support this change. Our motto is Semper Fidelis — always faithful. And that means not always faithful just to the Marine Corps, but also in all aspects of our life, including our spouse. We were strongly supported in this by the Congress of the United States. The turning point was probably a floor speech by Sen. Robert Byrd, who referenced the Corps' stand on adultery and compared it to the Army's stand at Bastogne [during World War II], when the Germans demanded the Army surrender, and the general's answer was “Nuts.” Byrd said that's what the Marine Corps said to the proposed change on adultery. The bottom line is they didn't change the article.

How about the issue of women in combat?

First off, the definition of combat, in my mind, is close combat. The thought in my mind of women walking point in a Marine rifle squad, who would be the person to take the first shot or fire the first round is, in my mind, not the way this country needs to go. The mothers and fathers of America are not ready to see their daughters walking the point in a Marine rifle squad. Second, I don't think Congress is ready to pass a change in the law that says women have to do that. I don't question there are women capable of doing so, but the issue is, do we, as a nation, believe our young daughters should be in direct combat? I don't feel the country is ready for it.

Have the higher Marine Corps standards in values and also in other requirements led to a more committed person?

Yes. Because, as I said, we have standards that exceed those of the Department of Defense and our own former standards. In recruiting, for example, the Department of Defense says 90% of the recruits have to be high school graduates. We said no, we're going to 95%. Further, we administer drug tests three times to potential recruits before they even go to the recruit depot. We examine them for tattoos, to see if they have any that are gang-related or race-related. They're not allowed in the Marine Corps if they do. Then, we made boot camp tougher. When they get there, we tell them they're being held accountable to our core values of honor, courage and commitment. If you can't meet those values, we tell them, we're gonna throw you out. Well, for 49 straight months, the Corps has met or exceeded its recruiting goals, and our retention rate is extremely high. And, we've averaged almost 97% of high school graduates.

How about in terms of attracting young people with higher moral values?

By the time recruits get into the Marine Corps, their values are pretty well set. What we've said very clearly to them is that we're going to take your values and laminate our values on the ones you already have. Our values are the core values of our Corps: honor, courage — physical and moral — and commitment. If you abide by these values, you will become a Marine and do great things and then return to society better for having been a Marine. You otherwise will not wear the eagle, globe and anchor of the Marines. There are people who come to us with really solid values. Others come to us as what we call “empty vessels.” They just have not worked much with values. We instill our values in them. Then, there are those who try to come to us with value systems that are not what you or I would want, and we just don't accept them.

When you were a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did your moral and ethical principles get a good reception?

I think they certainly and absolutely knew where I stood, as a Christian, on all these issues involving morality. I'm not sure they always agreed. But they never fought me on them. When I needed support, I usually got it. On the adultery issue, for example, they didn't come right out vocally, but I think they were supportive of me. I feel most people there understood that if you started saying not every act of adultery is punishable, sooner or later people will pick and choose whether or not they want to commit adultery, and that's not good.

Do you feel people are looking to return to core moral values?

Oh, I absolutely believe that the young people of today, who we call Generation X and Generation Next, have the potential to be the next great generation. They are wonderful, wonderful kids. They just need to be led, to be challenged, and to be held accountable. If you do that, these kids are as good as any I've ever seen. I'm very excited about them. If we focus on values, hold them accountable and challenge them, they're going to perform in a manner most people just like to dream about. If they don't, it's only because we've allowed them not to.

What do you tell young Marines in that respect?

I tell them, “You need to be challenged and become accountable, but if you stick with us, we're going to make you successful.” What we're telling the American people is, “We're joining the [moral] fight with you.” I believe in my heart and soul that mothers and fathers of America are trying to produce children of character. There are no parents out there trying to raise bad kids. There are no teachers out there saying, “I'm not going to do the job.” And the churches are certainly working hard. The problem is, society is bombarding the kids with garbage — sex, alcohol, drugs, violence and so forth. So, the Marine Corps said, “We're going to join in this fight with the mothers and the fathers and the teachers and the churches in a way that's going to make this generation better.” The end result is whether that kid spends four years or 35 years in the Marine Corps, sooner or later he will return to American society better for having been a Marine. Therefore, he will help make America stronger. The whole idea of the Corps is to return to society someone better for having been a Marine.

—Jim Malerba

Gen. Charles Krulak

Personal: Married to Zandra; two sons, David and Todd.

Education: Graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor's degree in engineering; earned a master's in labor relations from George Washington University.

Honors: Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, and the Combat Action Ribbon, as well as numerous other service medals.

Current position: Four-star general who is commandant of the Marine Corps and will be officially retiring Sept. 1.