MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- The Marine Corps trains its service members to exude a multitude of traits and characteristics in order to be effective war fighters, whether it be deployed to foreign countries or in garrison. One of the most basic, yet important traits a Marine must display is the ability to be a leader among leaders. The Squad Leader Development Program is one of the newest approaches the Marine Corps uses to professionalize, grow and sustain leadership in the infantry community.
Marines with 1st Marine Division gathered for an SLDP conference promoting the program and discussing some of the changes it has gone through for the new fiscal year, aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 20, 2016.
The program stems directly from Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commandant of the Marine Corps, and his desire to find dedicated and talented noncommissioned officers to fill leadership roles within the operating forces. What the program particularly focuses on is small unit leadership in infantry battalions.
The SLDP provides accepted infantry Marines with the guaranteed opportunity to take part in advanced training courses and required professional military educational courses. Once accepted into the program, Marines can choose from two paths: They can elect to stay in the operating forces or they can serve in a combat instructor special duty assignment.
“We are the only [military occupational specialty] to have this opportunity,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Bruce Knapp, the 1st Marine Division operations chief. “SLDP gives you the opportunity to open up your brain and leave your comfort zone. This program is one of the reasons why we are the best trained organization.”
He also said, without the right quality noncommissioned officers and staff noncommissioned officers to fill the necessary leadership billets the Marine Corps fighting force requires, our readiness and effectiveness as the nation’s rapid response force diminishes. Overall, the SLDP ensures small unit leaders are given both the tools required to operate at a high level and enough time in a unit to walk their squad through an entire deployment cycle.
The program has gone through numerous changes since its origin to help entice Marines into taking full advantage of the opportunities presented. The main changes made to the program were to the two career route options.
The option guaranteeing infantry Marines the opportunity to stay in a deployable battalion allows them to re-enlist or extend their contracts for as little as 18 months or as long as 60. The combat instructor option requires Marines to re-enlist for at least 48 months, but at least 30 of those will be served on a special duty assignment before returning to the operating forces.
Either career track will earn selected Marines the MOS of infantry squad leader.
Corporals selected for the program earn an automatic promotion to sergeant and all participants are guaranteed a spot in the competitive Small Unit Leaders Course and Sergeants Resident Course. They can also collect cash bonuses; sometimes double the going rate for a regular infantry re-enlistment.
Although the program presents Marines with the opportunity to become more experienced leaders and ultimately progress their careers, the selection process is very stringent.
“In the Marine Corps, you either lead, follow or get out of the way,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Vincent Kyzer, the Division Gunner. “We don’t want the bottom 10 percent, we want the best. We want the superstars who are the most capable.”
After being accepted into the program, Marines must complete all the designated training courses while continuing to uphold and maintain Marine Corps leadership standards.
Overall, SLDP presents Marines with the chance to not only improve their own careers, but to gain the experience and tools to mold their subordinates into better leaders for the future and become reliable small unit leaders commanders can depend on.
“When I was a lieutenant, guys like you helped me [get] here today,” said Lt. Col. Rafael Candelario, the 5th Marine Regiment executive officer. “Sergeants and corporals who later became staff sergeants and gunnies all started out where you guys are right now.”
“You Marines have a lot of potential and this program can help you reach it,” he continued. “I would ask you to look at what you have to offer the Marine Corps and what the Marine Corps has to offer you. They offer a lot if you accept it.”