Recruiting is one of five special duty assignments Manpower experts can help Marines land. But the needs of the Corps outweigh individual preferences. (Sgt. Scott Schmidt / Marine Corps)
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — With a shrinking Corps and the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, the importance of completing a special duty assignment continues to mount for many career-minded Marines hoping to gain a leg up on the competition at their next selection board.
A successful SDA tour proves to a board that a Marine can not only perform in their primary MOS, but also in a challenging job outside their main skill set which requires initiative, dedication and diligence, said Lt. Col. Rory Quinn, Manpower and Reserve Affairs’ Enlisted Assignments section head, which oversees the special duty assignments unit.
“When competing against a Marine in your MOS, who only has that MOS experience, it gives you an edge,” he said.
Each SDA has its own perks and rigors, advantages and disadvantages including the level of SDA pay they offer. Marines looking for the best way to come out ahead — whether looking to secure the job of their preference or simply pocket as much extra pay as they can — should be proactive.
Marines can volunteer for an SDA in advance, getting ahead of the rush to fill billets. Or, if tapped to be screened by the Headquarters Marine Corps Special Duty Assignments Selection Team, they should prepare to make a strong case for why they’d be a good fit for the duty of their choice.
Each year the screening team identifies all SDA-eligible Marines based on a wide array of criteria, including time-on-station requirements and a record clean of nonjudicial punishments. The list typically includes about 10,000 Marines and is released in late October. Those named are expected to prepare to meet with the team, which begins visiting major installations the following January and February to meet with Marines one-on-one.
Typically, the team screens about 4,000 Marines before filling about 2,300 and 2,800 open billets in a given year to replace Marines ending a three-year tour. The assignments include: drill instructor, combat instructor, recruiter, MSG or Marine Corps security forces guard, who are responsible for guarding nuclear weapons.
“During the [screening] process, Marines can tell us their preference,” said Master Sgt. Lysa Packard, the SDA unit’s drill instructor monitor. “They look at the checklist for the SDA, put their preference on there.”
At the screening event, Marines can make their case for why they should or should not get a particular SDA, but the needs of the Corps ultimately outweigh a Marine’s choice. Every year about 700 Marines are sent to recruiting duty, more than any other SDA. That inevitably includes some Marines who did not want recruiting, Quinn said.
In all, about 60 to 70 percent of Marines screened and selected are direct assigned to an SDA, and 30 to 40 percent volunteer, said Capt. Paul Herdener, the head of the Manpower’s Special Duty Assignments unit.
Regardless, Quinn said, Marines should not try to avoid the screening team because they can make their case for why recruiting, or any other assignment, isn’t a good fit. Reasons could include a Marines personal circumstances.
For example, a child with a medical condition would preclude a Marine from serving as an embassy detachment commander in a country where there are limited resources. Or, a Marine may not feel they posses the interpersonal skills to perform well as a recruiter interacting with the public on a daily basis. Marines don’t typically like to point our their weaknesses, Quinn said, but telling a screener why they are likely to fail at a particular assignment doesn’t result in a mark on a Marine’s record.
Conversely, the screening process is a Marine’s opportunity to highlight personal strengths that would lend themselves to a particular job they desire whether for the extra pay or the opportunities it will afford.
Understanding the needs and demands of the Corps can also help. For example, a Marine who wants to improve their chances of being assigned as a drill instructor can try to volunteer for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. While the recruit depot in San Diego is typically overstaffed, Parris Island is typically in need. Those are bits of insight Marines can glean by contacting the SDA unit at Quantico, even before they are tapped for screening.
“Our phone never stops ringing,” Herdener said.
Unfortunately, there isn’t room for every Marine to do an SDA, but it isn’t necessarily a career stumbling block. Although completion of an SDA is an advantage, Quinn said most of a Marine’s career success is dictated by solid documented performance, even if only in their primary job.
For example, at last year’s staff sergeant selection board, there were 156 allocations for 0369 infantry unit leader — a competitive job, he said. Just 82 of the Marines selected for promotion had completed or were on a SDA, translating to about half. The rest picked up rank based on primary military occupational specialty performance alone.
Additionally, some MOSs are too in demand to be expected to complete SDAs. The MV-22B Osprey community, for example, is expanding. As a result, MOS monitors want to keep Marines in that field working in their primary specialty, Herdener said. They will be judged heavily on their performance in their routine job at a selection board. The same goes for typical high demand, low density occupations like 0211 human intelligence/counterintelligence specialist or 0372 critical skills operators with Marine Corps Special Operations Command.
But, for a Marine in a larger, overpopulated or slow to promote MOS, the successful completion of an SDA is a sure way to stand out among their peers. Those might include motor transport, supply or admin MOSs, Quinn said.