Posted : Tuesday May 25, 2010
Thirteen junior officers were kicked out of the Marine Corps last week after officials uncovered widespread cheating on a land navigation exam.
All 13 were students at The Basic School aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., a six-month training course for newly commissioned officers. Eight men — including two former football players from the Naval Academy — and five women were administratively discharged May 20 for allegedly using cheat sheets last fall to help them locate boxes stashed in the woods aboard the base, Marine officials said. Two of the 13 officers were prior enlisted Marines.
The scandal came to light in September after instructors at the school, which teaches new officers how to lead infantry platoons, compared current answer sheets to those used on previous tests. They discovered that several of the Marines’ wrong answers matched correct answers from the old test, Col. George W. Smith Jr., TBS commander, told Marine Corps Times.
The instructors alerted Smith to their findings, and the command launched an investigation days later. Officials determined the Marines had received an answer sheet from a previous exam, although it’s not clear how it was distributed, Smith said.
Smith recommended that all 13 Marines tied to the scam be administratively discharged. That decision, he said, was approved by the commanding generals of Training and Education Command and Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Commandant Gen. James Conway and by Juan Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
“The commandant has made it clear that we can tolerate many things, but not integrity violations,” said Lt. Col. Matthew McLaughlin, a Marine spokesman based at the Pentagon. “Personal integrity is the heart of Marine Corps leadership.”
While at TBS, newly commissioned officers learn how to lead an infantry platoon. The curriculum includes 9½ hours of classroom study, where students develop “timeless fundamental skills” such as how to use a protractor and a map to track coordinates, and how to use terrain association to keep from getting lost, said Maj. Jeffrey Landis, a spokesman for TBS.
They then complete 41 hours in the field, which concludes with a final practical examination in which students have seven hours to make their way through 14 square miles of complicated, wooded terrain where they must locate 10 boxes, or ammunition cans. Smith said instructors regularly switch the location of those boxes with hopes of preventing the junior officers from cheating.
Officials declined to release the names of the Marines who were discharged, but former Naval Academy fullback 2nd Lt. Adam Ballard told Marine Corps Times that he is one of the 13. He said the problem is more widespread than the Corps wants people to believe, but that officials found only one answer key, so they didn’t have enough evidence to separate other lieutenants.
Although Ballard plans to fight the ruling, he also admitted he has been talking to the NFL about going pro.
“Everyone has character flaws. I’m not saying what I did was right or should go without punishment,” Ballard said. “I did have a moment of weakness, but I guess I’m facing the consequences of that.”
A source with knowledge of academics at the academy said the former star player finished his four years despite several failed classes and at least one honor code violation — claims Ballard does not deny. He says he sometimes struggled to balance the rigors of academy academics against the demanding schedule of a varsity athlete, adding that the honor code violation was later dropped.
It’s unclear who the second football player is, or what his academic standing was at the academy, but as academy graduates who do not fulfill their service commitments, both will be billed for the cost of their education.
Smith said he is unaware of prior ethical violations among the officers tied to the scandal, saying that did not play into his decision.
“While proficiency with a Lensatic compass is important, their moral compass is of utmost importance to our Corps. Their moral compass must unerringly point to do the right thing at all times. Without that, in my strongest opinion, they don’t have the foundation to continue to serve as Marine leaders,” he said.
Smith said at least one of the lieutenants investigated told officials he didn’t understand the need to learn land navigation skills when technology, such as GPS, could do the work for them.
Apparently, he’s not alone.
The command began checking current answer sheets against older master sheets a few years ago after similar allegations surfaced against a group of warrant officers attending their four-month training course at TBS. Even though there wasn’t enough evidence to support the claims, officials took the allegations seriously.
Sixteen officers were busted in yet another land nav cheating scam in 1995. All 16 received some form of nonjudicial punishment, with nine officers facing formal boards of inquiry because of their level of participation in the scam.
Smith cautioned Marines about taking technology for granted and said land navigation is a vital part of Marine leadership.
“Technology is not infallible,” he said. “At the point of friction, you may not have a GPS signal, yet you are still required as a unit commander to know where your Marines are at all times and to be able to get them to safety.”
Staff writer Philip Ewing contributed to this report.