What it Takes to Become One of the Marine Corps’ Elite
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By Caleb Larson, The National Interest
Being a warrior-athlete is certainly one factor. The other—more important factor? The ability to stay positive in adverse conditions.
That American Marines are tough is accepted as fact. Though the Corps was originally founded in 1775, their place in the American psyche was secured thanks to the brutal island hopping campaigns against the Empire of Japan during World War II. In the Pacific, the Marines defined themselves as America’s elite force-in-readiness—an ethos that continues today.
Put simply, the Marines consider themselves the best of the best. Thanks to this belief, the Marine Corps has traditionally eschewed the term special forces: if all Marines are elite, then what’s the point of calling some Marines more elite than others? Still, some of the Marine Corps’ best make up Force Reconnaissance, a special-operations capable force with a mission profile comparable to that of the Green Berets or Navy SEALS.
The Reconnaissance selection and training course is intensely rigorous. Thanks to the Marines’ amphibious nature, much of selection involves swimming and underwater training in addition to timed marches and other physical fitness tests. The dropout rate is high—over 50 percent of candidates who attempt Recon selection drop out. Of those that don’t pass selection, half are failed due for medical reasons. The other half, nearly a quarter of all candidates, voluntarily choose to quit, or “Drop on Request.”
A high dropout rate is a testament to how challenging both the physical and mental aspects of Recon selection are. But it is also frustrating for the Marine Corps—and expensive. The Marine Corps has a desire to maximize the number of Marines who pass selection, without compromising their fitness standards or making the course any easier. If they could predict who would be likely to fail or pass before Recon selection, training would be more efficient. One researcher decided to try and answer the question, what separates those who pass from those who fail?
Testing 1, 2, 3
Leslie Saxon, a professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine conducted a study to determine why so many Marine candidates were dropping out. Her study “sought to continuously quantify the mental and physical status of trainees of an elite United States military unit [Recon Marines] to identify novel predictors of success or failure in successive training classes performed on land and in water.” The results of the study are fascinating.
In order to monitor candidate’s physical performance, they were given an Apple iPhone and Watch that monitored their heartbeat, how far they moved, the amount of sleep candidates received, nutrition, and various other quantifiable factors that could have an effect on passing Recon selection.
Most candidates who withdrew themselves did so on or before day seven of selection. Interestingly, the study concluded that, “Neither performance on physical training standards, such as hikes or aquatic training, or continuous measures of heart rate, work output, hydration, nutrition and sleep duration continuously predicted course completion.”
Using the data collected by the study, potential candidates’ chances of passing could be predicted with 70 percent accuracy. What sent them apart from the rest of their selection mates who did not pass? Extroversion and positive affect personality traits.
What this means for Marine Reconnaissance selection remains to be seen—but if you’re thinking about attempting Recon selection, try and think positive.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.