Op-Ed: It's Time to Add Respect as a Core Navy and Marine Corps Value

Sailors hauling on a line
USN file image

Published May 1, 2024 7:01 PM by Capt. John Cordle (USN, Ret'd)

Three years is a long time to ruminate on a decision. But that is how long it has been since the group of professionals who led Task Force One Navy (TF1N) listened to thousands of junior Sailors and Marines and made a very straightforward recommendation: add “Respect” as a fourth Navy and Marine Corps Core Value.

Ironically, the study of inclusion in the Navy and Marine Corps was commissioned with these words from then CNO Mike Gilday: “Our Navy must continue to remove barriers to service, and most importantly, be a shining example of a workforce centered on respect, inclusive of all. Simply put, all Sailors – uniformed and civilian - and applicants for accession to the Navy must be treated with dignity and respect above all else.” Respect is also one of the CNO Signature behaviors, so it definitely has a place here; elevating it to a 4th Core Value would be consistent with the Navy and Marines’ strategic messaging and cement its importance at a critical moment. And yet, three years later, it has not happened. Now is a perfect time to change that.  The graph below clearly demonstrates the result of this inaction, as most areas are trending upwards:

Figure 1. Trends in many areas of sexual assault and harassment continue to rise.  Adding “respect” could help – along with incorporation of COE 2.0 – to reverse this trend. (Source: CY 2022 DOD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military).

The TF1N recommendation was made by well-respected senior leaders and was based on extensive interviews with (primarily but not exclusively) minority Sailors of all races, genders, and backgrounds, who related story after story about being disrespected by their seniors peers based on race, gender, or sexual preference. This lack of respect may be subtle, in for form of microaggressions and invalidation, insulting comments or jokes. It can also manifest itself in discrimination, harassment, and even assault in numbers that have, in many cases, increased steadily from year to year since the recommendation was made; all of these behaviors contribute to the perception by many that they are not respected. This despite a multitude of new programs designed to increase training for and resources available to help those impacted.

The problem is that a reactive approach misses the point: the issue is not the behavior itself, but the culture that accepts it. The 2022 DOD Report on Sexual Assault in the military shows that 1 in 3 female Sailors reported being sexually harassed and 30% of them experienced retribution and retaliation. The following graphs show the challenges in the Navy in the areas of racial and gender discrimination, bullying, other “disrespectful” behaviors:

Figure 2. These two graphs show quite a disparity in the way racism and sexism are viewed by individuals of different race and gender; is this a sign that respect is lacking, especially in the “Senior to Junior” direction.  Many, including those interviewed by TF1N, seem to think so. (Source: MyNavyHR 2023 Health of the Force Report)

There really is no down side to this decision; one common counter-argument against the change is that “respect” is “already there” - embedded in the sub-bullets of two of the three core values, and that this is enough. For our junior Sailors and Marines, many of whom have spoken about it with me in various forums, this is clearly not the case. There is also reportedly a level of resistance in the U. S. Marine Corps to the change, and a desire not to “split” the services core values.  That is makes perfect sense; but the USMC has seen an increase in some destructive behaviors even higher than the Navy, essentially tied with the Army as the highest of the services, as the following table shows:

Figure 3. The USMC has seen an upward trend in the past 2 years, on path to surpass the Army next year. Perhaps the resistance to change in the core values is misplaced, and the change is equally warranted here as it is in the Navy. (Source: CY 2022 DOD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military).

Adding “Respect” would not change, dilute, or denigrate the existing core values - they have held true through the ages and served them well. But with the Navy failing to meet recruiting goals with the current generation of Americans who expect their views to be respected, our generation needs to adapt if our military is to thrive; theirs does not, nor is it likely to. We ignore their values and expectations at our peril.

Looking back, there are many rumors about what (or who) stood in opposition to this recommendation; that no longer matters, as several top Navy and Marine Corps leaders have moved on and new ones have taken over. Looking forward, this presents the new CNO and CMC with a “once in a generation” opportunity to listen - and act. One final argument for this addition (it’s not really a “change”) to the Core Values is that while the current three are all individual-focused, adding “Respect” as a fourth would add a new layer that extends beyond the individual: that of community, connection and teamwork. In addition, it would have three immediate impacts: 

1. It would send a signal to our Junior sailors and Marines that “we hear you” - in fact, the continued failure to address the issue at all almost three years after the TF1N report sends the opposite signal. 

2. It would be accompanied by an explanation of why this addition is necessary now, using facts and data, and serve to enable leadership conversations about why junior personnel do not feel that they are respected, and how to change that. 

3. It would be a key step in changing the Navy-Marine Corps culture into one where respect for the value of the team is on the same level as that of the individual, a key tenet of COE 2.0. But the data speaks volumes, and the message is clear: action is required to affect culture change.

There is perhaps no more accurate summation of the current situation than the observation made by the 12-person panel that conducted the Independent Review Counsel report on Sexual Harassment and Assault in 2021, ironically titled Hard Truths: “We found a huge chasm between what senior leaders believe is happening and what junior personnel are experiencing”. Not my words - theirs.  This simple statement is at once direct, profound - and disturbing. The good news is that one simple word could help correct this cultural drift: Respect. It is completely in alignment with the new Culture of Excellence 2.0, an excellent document and a huge step in the right direction.

A wooden plaque on my wall, the “Epictetus Award for Innovative Leadership” is inscribed with the statement, “Anyone can hold the rudder when the seas are calm”.  Today, there are new hands on the rudder as Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Marine Corps; they can act in concert to put it “hard over” and accelerate the positive change - by adding “RESPECT” as a fourth Core Value. 

Captain (retired) John Cordle completed two Navy surface ship command tours including a wartime deployment in command of USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79) and a counter-piracy deployment in command of USS San Jacinto (CG 56). He was awarded the Navy League John Paul Jones Award and the Bureau of Navy Medicine Epictetus Award for Innovative and Inspirational Leadership for his work in crew endurance and circadian watch rotations.

This article builds on a previous piece published in USNI Proceedings, and the original may be found at https://blog.usni.org/posts/2022/03/22/r-e-s-p-e-c-t-find-out-what-it-means-to-me. 


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.