Marines Roll Out Special Forces

After decades of resistance on the grounds that “all Marines are special,” the Marine Corps is jumping on the special forces bandwagon.

A Camp Pendleton veteran is ready to lead the Marine Corps’ inaugural band of “snake eaters.” Fresh from a tour there as deputy commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Brig. Gen. Dennis Hejlik is forming the Marine Corps’ first-ever special forces command. Hejlik was at the San Diego Convention Center yesterday [Jan. 11] to speak at the Naval Institute’s West 2006 conference, which was expected to draw at least 10,000 visitors.

The Marines, who consider all in the Corps to be elite, long have resisted joining forces with commando teams such as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Green Berets. But today, special forces get the first call in the fight against terrorists. They toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and struck the first blows against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “We’re very much in the spotlight, and sexy,” said retired Navy Capt. Roger Crossland, a 35-year SEAL veteran who joined Hejlik on yesterday’s panel. “We’re a hot item.” Without its own special operations teams – known throughout the military as snake eaters because of the tough conditions they encounter – the Marine Corps risked missing out on the Pentagon’s Next Big Thing. “We are a very conservative organization,” said retired Gen. Joe Hoar of Del Mar, who served in the Marines from 1957 to 1994. “We’re not prepared to make changes just because it’s fashionable. But I think the time has come.”

When the Marine Corps Special Operations Command unfurls its flag next month at Camp Lejeune, N.C., only Hejlik and a few staff members will wear the unit’s patch. Hejlik expects to have two companies ready for combat by year’s end. “We’re being pretty aggressive, pretty ambitious,” he said of the command, which organizers plan to call MarSOC. Within five years, Hejlik said, about 2,600 Marines will make up the special unit. About one-fourth of them will be based at Camp Pendleton. MarSOC will include a special operations combat regiment, an intelligence and support unit, and a team to train foreign troops.


A 400-man unit for training foreign troops is on an even faster track. It was formed in October under the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune. Its first members will complete training next week and transfer to Hejlik’s command sometime this year, said MarSOC spokesman Maj. Cliff Gilmore.

Hoar said the Marines almost jumped into special forces ahead of the other services. Marine Gen. Victor Krulak pioneered the concept in the early 1960s, Hoar said, and wanted the Corps to take on the Pentagon’s entire special operations mission. Many people opposed it, fearing any change would fray the Marines’ traditional ties to the Navy and cost them their elite status, Hoar said. When the Pentagon created the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1986, only the Marines stayed out.

Since becoming defense secretary in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld has made special forces a centerpiece of his crusade to transform the military. Rumsfeld insisted on their central role in the early stages of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. In five years, the combined special forces have grown from 46,000 to 53,000 troops, and their budget has increased from $3.8 billion to $8 billion.

While the Marine infantrymen are elite commandos, on par with the Army’s Rangers, they are not special forces in the classic sense. A few years of cajoling by the SECDEF and a few billion on the table was apparently enough to change that.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Wayne says:

    I curious about what directions they will head. Their force recon units would be easily used in direct action or special recon type missions. The Navy Seals and Army Rangers tend to emphasize these types of operations. Yes, I know their mission statement contain all five of the main mission but their main focus has been those two. Or will the marines’ main focus be on unconventional warfare and counter insurgency operations. The need is for UW and CI operations but these tend to be less glamorous. Time will tell.