Last Friday the Marine Corps laid to rest at Arlington one of its finest commandants, Gen. Leonard F. Chapman Jr. We who are privileged to wear the Marine uniform owe a lasting debt to him for his leadership during one of the most difficult periods of the modern era.

Gen. Chapman became commandant on Jan. 1, 1968, a time when our country was heavily involved in an unpopular war in Vietnam and was grappling with a host of problems that deeply affected society. Drug abuse, racial tensions and a large conscripted force challenged the fabric of both our civilian and military societies.

To confront these challenges, Chapman balanced the traditional military needs for discipline and obedience to orders against the realities of a changing society and its effect on military culture. He held the line on Marine Corps standards while extending the boundaries of freedom of expression within our ranks.

In so doing, he led our Corps from the abyss of Vietnam toward the all-volunteer force, and his dignified leadership inspired many, like myself, who made up the young officer corps in the '70s, to follow his lead and remain on active duty.

The decisions he made were not easy and were frequently at odds with prevailing social trends, but Marines knew them to be essential to the preservation of our Corps. His policies with regard to race relations and drug use are good examples of his vision.

Chapman reinforced the long-standing policy that discrimination would not be tolerated; he did so by issuing a clear message of intent to all Marines. Pointing out the link between equal opportunity and combat effectiveness, he instructed leaders to eradicate every trace of discrimination, intentional or otherwise.

In 1969 he created the Equal Opportunity Branch at Headquarters Marine Corps, which established the basic framework on which the Corps built race relations programs in the '70s. That branch continues to address these issues today.

As for drug use: While many thought Marine leaders should look the other way, Chapman responded with a policy of zero tolerance. "The Marine Corps cannot tolerate drug use within its ranks," he wrote. "Those who experiment with drugs will be punished. Those who are addicted will be separated. . . . Both types of users introduce unnecessary operational risk, as well as an unwholesome environment."

Junior leaders saw and respected the general's adherence to standards in a sea of change. They admired the fact that he stood tall on principle when it would have been more expedient to cave in to popular opinion. His "We don't promise you a rose garden" recruiting theme rang true to Marines who valued service above self.

We also saw in this man a living example of the character and attributes that reflect what Americans think and feel about the word "Marine." Soft-spoken but by no means gentle, Chapman let his actions do his talking. He proved his physical courage time and again on the many battlefields on which he served; he also consistently demonstrated moral courage in the decisions he made as commandant.

Chapman loved being a Marine, and he loved those who served under him. His sense of duty was so strong that he would never allow his personal feelings to interfere with what was important or necessary for his country and the Marine Corps. He was a patriot and a leader at a time when such values weren't fully understood or appreciated by many segments of our society.

The primary reason the Marine Corps flourishes today can be traced to the standards passed on to my generation of Marines. He consistently did the right thing.

Today, our Corps' success in meeting its recruiting goals is evidence that young Americans remain drawn to those ideals. We see, time and again, that those standards are necessary, and that they continue to define us.

The writer is commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.