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Training the few, the proud, the ethical: Civilians get chance to make tough decisions like Marines

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QUANTICO, Va. — Creeping through the hilly, wooded terrain, the squad of Marines spotted something across the river. It looked like three men having a picnic.

As they drew closer, squad members realized that two men were on their knees, hands tied behind their backs, and an armed man was standing over them.

"Help! We're American aid workers! Help!" the two captives shouted. The gunman warned the squadron not to come any closer.

One squad member aimed his rifle at the gunman and waited for the order to shoot. Instead, the squad leader whispered, "Keep moving."

As the group moved on, the bound men begged them not to leave. Suddenly, two shots were fired and the captives slumped to the ground. Members of the squadron looked at one another in blame and embarrassment.

"I was focused on the mission," the squad leader said. "And I wasn't sure if they were Americans."

That "encounter" was one scenario that faced corporate executives and business students who volunteered recently to go through three days of ethics training at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico. The gunman and the captives were Marines playing roles in the exercise.

Steven Olson, a professor at Georgia State University's J. Mack Robinson College of Business, and the Marine Corps' Basic School for new officers designed the course to teach business executives how to execute ethical decision-making skills under extreme pressure. Begun in 2011, the course is offered three to four times a year to about 13 executives each time.

Given basic patrolling techniques, protective gear, unloaded semi-automatic rifles and rules of engagement on the use of deadly force, the volunteers in the squadron spend two days in the middle of the woods in the dead of winter, tasked with missions during which they would face one ethical dilemma after another.

The scenarios are based on the same ones troops in Afghanistan face daily, when there is no clear right or wrong answer and split-second decisions can end in death.

"The course trains people to the challenges of ethical character, and there's really nobody that does it like the Marine Corps," said Mr. Olson, director of the university's Center of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility.

Marine Capt. Matthew Ingold, a course instructor, added: "We operate where things are very unclear, where there's a lot of pressure and stress, and you have to make a quick decision."

In a war zone, even junior Marine officers take on tremendous responsibility and are expected to make decisions based on sound judgment, Capt. Ingold said.

"Good decisions and poor decisions can impact the overall strategic mission on a national policy level," he said.

Marine Capt. Katey Van Dam, another course instructor, said: "We don't call this problem-solving, because there is no 'solution.' These are ethical dilemmas."

As the volunteer squadron made its way through a series of missions, the results were often shocking.

One mission was to establish a relationship with an Islamic religious leader in a local village. The squad hiked through the woods, crossing shallow creeks and trudging through mud. They eventually came across a mosque where the religious leader greeted them with open arms. He was preparing to conduct a marriage ceremony.

"I'm so happy you could come today for the wedding," he said, hugging each squad member.

The female squad leader spotted a sobbing young woman in a long white gown tied up behind the mosque.

"Why is that woman tied up?" the squad leader said. "She doesn't look too happy."

"Oh, she is about to consummate the marriage," the religious leader said, escorting the squad leader into a tent where the bride was now in hysterics. "She will learn to accept it."

The bride suddenly broke free from her captors and ran toward the group, screaming that she would be raped. Some of the students tried to protect her, but the squad leader instructed them to let her go. The religious leader dragged her, kicking and screaming, back to the tent.

That encounter sparked tensions among the squad.

"The rules of engagement say we can use force. She's going to be raped," a male student said, taking out his guide for proof.

"No, she just doesn't want to be married," the squad leader said.

"I don't agree, but this is on you," the male student responded as he walked away in frustration.

Sounds of the bride screaming and being beaten echoed in the still air.

Even though the "villagers" were other Marines, the squad of students and executives learned a lesson in how to deal with their own responses.

"They'd never imagine they would let an American aid worker die, or let a woman be raped and not only that, they actually justify it afterward," Mr. Olson said.

He said students taking the course tend to defer to the squad leader's judgment or another authority figure instead of doing what they think is right.

The students also tend to submit to a group ethic by cooperating with the squad rather than breaking its cohesion. They tend to be biased toward values such as "fairness and reciprocity" and are afraid to offend those who were welcoming to them, such as the religious leader who hugged them and later dragged away the bride.

"When you're learning to walk, you fall a lot. Failures are so painful and costly, we shy away from discussing them and don't find out where our weaknesses are," Mr. Olson said. "You learn a ton from failure. You don't learn a lot from success."

Hours later, at least two students were still upset by the exercise and regretted not saving the bride.

"I shouldn't have given her back," one said. "Coulda, woulda, shoulda."

Capt. Ingold said that doing what you think is right can come with a cost, especially in a war zone.

Questions of "Did I do the right thing?" continue to haunt many troops when they come home from combat, Capt. Ingold said. That is often a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There's an internal dialogue that continues, and in a lot of ways it attacks your humanity. There's an identity crisis that you fall into," he said.

Capt. Ingold said the students get a taste of the training that young Marine lieutenants face to prepare them for battle.

"They're United States Marines -- young men and women of exemplary character that have dedicated themselves to preserving human dignity and protecting the freedom and values that American people hold dear," he said.

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