Why You Will Leave the Marine Corps (After One Tour)

A 2011 study at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government of young officers who had left the military found that their top reasons for doing so were not the high operating tempo or the chance of being maimed but rather two other factors: “limited ability to control their own careers” and “frustration with military bureaucracy.”

Thomas Ricks, The Generals

You’re going to enter the Marine Corps a motivated, optimistic Second Lieutenant riding a wave of satisfaction and resolve after passing through the intense test of OCS. Then you’re going to spend six long months at The Basic School frustrated at the endless boring lectures, fifteen hour days of hurry-up-and-wait, and the back-stabbing peer evaluation climate. Finally you will graduate and then spend months more at your MOS (Military Occupational School) slowly dying in 8-hour PowerPoint days (logistics school) or getting hazed by unhinged Captains (infantry). Maybe even looking down the long tunnel of 2-4 years of academically draining flight school at the small light where eventually “it gets better.”

US Marine Capt. Rebecca Bergstedt is the officer in charge of a Female Engagement Team. ~Sgt. Matthew Callahan/US Marine Corps
US Marine Capt. Rebecca Bergstedt is the officer in charge of a Female Engagement Team. ~Sgt. Matthew Callahan/US Marine Corps

Once you hit the fleet, you probably will finally get that leadership position. And you will find that leading Marines is a wonderful privilege and responsibility. Eventually, however, micromanagement, bureaucracy, and reason-choking conventions will drive you crazy. Intellect and creativity will be sacrificed on the altars of compliance and uniformity. If you can’t resign yourself to the often inefficient or wasteful rules of government life, you will eventually become dispirited and demotivated as you lose the will to innovate. Mercifully, your EAS (end of active duty date) will approach and you will be just as glad on the day you left the Marine Corps as you were proud on the day you joined.

The above is an admittedly pessimistic view of most junior officer’s first tour, but it is a common story, seen again and again. Two-thirds to three-quarters of officers leave the service at their earliest opportunity. They hold many of the same reasons in common. Have you thought about the negatives of serving before committing four years of your life to this organization? Let’s take a hard look at the top reasons why young officers leave the Marine Corps:

Junior Officer’s Top Reasons for Leaving the Military

The following insights are gleaned from one of the only known polls on this issue, Junior Military Officer Retention: Challenges and Opportunities by Sayce Falk & Sasha Rogers, John F. Kennedy School of Government Harvard University. Done in 2011, it sampled JMOs from across all services.

Inability to Choose Career Paths

At TBS, you will be assigned a general Military Occupational Specialty, or job field. About 85% of lieutenants get one of their top 5 picks. That means 3 in 20 officers do not even get one of their top¬†5¬†choices. For their career! These MOSs include such fields as infantry, artillery, logistics, communication, administration, combat engineering, intelligence, and supply. Your MOS will have a huge impact on what your military career will be like. In addition, after you leave the military, your MOS could drastically focus or limit your job options. And all that changes in one somewhat random decision after only a couple months of observation in The Basic School. After that, your career changes are processed in a similar fashion. The “Needs of the Marine Corps” will dictate what jobs you have, where you live, and who will be your boss.

"What word comes to mind when you think about the military personnel system?"
“What word comes to mind when you think about the military personnel system?”

Since you’re just a number to the Marine Corps, personal talents, interests, and relationships will not necessarily count for much. Your preferences will ostensibly (although opaquely) be considered as part of the process, although you generally will only get to voice geographic preference. As you grow to know yourself better and understand where you would be happiest, this will frustrate you at some point in your career. Possibly enough to make you prefer the freedom of civilian life.

Organizational Flexibility. The number one reported reason for separation among our respondents was limited ability to control their own careers. Frustration with a one- size-fits-all system was by far the most common complaint, with emphasis on bureaucratic personnel processes that respondents called ‚Äúbroken,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúarchaic,‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdysfunctional.‚ÄĚ

Bureaucracy Über Alles

From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than a cutting-edge meritocracy. -Tim Kane, Bleeding Talent

US Marine RecruitThe Marine Corps is not a profitable business. There is no guiding bottom line incentivizing efficiency. The military is just as subject to waste, inefficiency, and strategic misdirection as any other government branch. Rules, manuals, and tradition dictate almost everything about how an officer does his job. The better you are at following the party line and executing pre-ordained instructions, the better your service will go. Creativity or out-of-the-box thinking is not a priority in the military as a whole, and especially in the Marine Corps. Some people seem to thrive in such environments, while more creative “right-brain” individuals often are very frustrated with such a robotic system.

Commitment to Innovation. In second place, 41% of respondents ranked frustration with military bureaucracy as the most or a very important factor in their decision to leave. Nearly half felt the military did a poor job at identifying and rewarding traits such as creativity, as opposed to qualities such as endurance or ability to follow orders.

"How well does the military do at identifying and rewarding the following professional traits?" Intellect and Creativity would probably rate even worse on a USMC-only poll
“How well does the military do at identifying and rewarding the following professional traits?” Intellect and Creativity would probably rate even worse on a USMC-only poll

Other Commonly-Cited Concerns

Those are the top two reasons that junior officers give for leaving the military. In the research, they outranked all other concerns in the frequency with which they were expressed. Some of the other top factors were as follows:

  • Quality of Life. Including concerns for family time and work/life balance.
  • Operational Tempo. The officers polled left from 2001-2010, most during a uniquely stressful high-tempo period of deployments to two wars.

Generally, “financial compensation” and “weak superiors” were not impactful concerns.

The Bottom Line: Take Stock

Apologies if this post has you feeling demotivated, apprehensive, or doubtful. In the end, you should make a well-informed decision, considering positive and negative aspects of service. Look at your own personal employment history, and see how you may react to these aspects of military life. Take a personal inventory to truly understand what motivates you, how you like to learn and work, and how you may react to the specific traits that the military values or devalues. Will you want to leave at your earliest opportunity? Will you be the one-in-three who prefer to stay? You can’t really know until you join, but you owe it to yourself and your family to make a wise choice with four years of your life.

Good luck and may you find the best answer for yourself.


8 thoughts on “Why You Will Leave the Marine Corps (After One Tour)

  1. An excellent article that speaks for many of us. The “two-thirds” statistic is a little shocking, but frankly corresponds to my observations, as do the reasons identified in the poll. To be fair, one of the reasons so many leave the organization is that it provides you so much opportunity to learn about yourself. Sometimes what you learn is that you belong elsewhere.

  2. “Since you‚Äôre just a number to the Marine Corps, personal talents, interests, and relationships will not necessarily count for much.”
    Ahh, but they do! If your personal talents are fighting, your interests are travel, developing physical and mental toughness through adversity, and your relationships consist of your pack and your fellow men…The Marine Corps is probably going to make you very happy.

    If not, I guess you can be a grocery store manager or something.

    1. Unless you become a clerk in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA for 4 years, with no fighting, travel, adversity, pack, or fellow men. If only it were that simple!

      Your personal interests, talents, and experiences prior to the Corps are not factored (much) into MOS selection, duty station, unit, coworker assignments, etc. We’ve all heard stories of Arabic-speaking nuclear engineers joining the military and washing dishes in Japan for 4 years.

  3. OCS blogger-I am just spit-balling here, but how many young officers become clerks at Twenty-Nine Palms? Maybe an Adjutant (0180)? They certainly have some adversity. I also contend that the Arabic-speaking nuclear engineer who is washing dishes might have clearance issues (possibly discovered by the aforementioned motivated admin clerk…) or he just didn’t tell anyone.

    1. They made me an Adjutant at CAMLEJ, 2nd SupBn . ZERO guidance/mentoring/ tutelage from my seniors. Such a severe disappointment being failed by upper ” Leaders”!

  4. My son just began combat training. He loved boot camp, and came out dialed in and ready for anything. Already, I’ve seen a bit of spirit breaking, but, hey, he signed up to be a Marine, and it seems like being able to take it is part of it. I’m pretty sure 4 years will be enough for him, but do you have any advice for how to compartmentalize all the bs that comes down the pike? Just because the uniform says Marine and they out rank you doesn’t necessarily mean they are a stellar human being-I think that can be a big struggling point.

    1. Ma’am, best of luck to you and your son. I happened upon your comment and wanted to give you and your son advice as far as the B.S. Another Marine told me that she kept a book where whenever she disagreed with what she was told or didn’t understand the reason behind it, she wrote it down. Then as years went on she was able to understand more of the reasons behind she had to do xyz. I have been doing the same since I signed up and it helps a bit. Also, once you get leadership positions you know what not to do! 4 years or 20, always a Marine and grateful for your son’s service.

      -From an anonymous Marine Officer (2nd tour type)

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