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Marine Corps vows sexual harassment reforms, criminal probe of Facebook group

Female U.S. Marine Corps enlistees meet Maj. Gen. Paul Kennedy, commanding general of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, outside of the Fox News building in New York City, Aug. 17, 2016.

BRANDON THOMAS/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By CARL PRINE AND JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: March 7, 2017

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Authorities on Monday continued their investigation into whether active-duty Marines and Navy corpsmen used a secret online forum to share salacious images of female service members, glorify sexual violence and threaten reprisals against the journalist who reported the misconduct.

Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents began interviewing potential victims of the cyber harassment posted on Marines United, a closed Facebook group that attracted about 30,000 followers before it was shut down over the weekend at the Pentagon’s request, Marine officials told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

They also urged possible victims to call designated hotlines to offer information for the investigation and receive counseling or related support services.

The scope of the scandal — hundreds of obscene photos and the forum’s large membership — raises questions of whether sexism still runs rampant in the U.S. military despite a high-profile campaign in recent years to cement women’s place as equals.

“Yes, gender relations have improved exponentially in the military, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough. This (misconduct is still) happening,” said Shawn VanDiver, San Diego chapter director of the Truman National Security Project and a recent Navy veteran.

The controversy was first reported Saturday by the nonprofit news site The War Horse in concert with Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The reporter, Purple Heart recipient Thomas Brennan, said in the aftermath of his story that Marines United members have sought photographs of his daughter, threatened to rape his wife and hinted that he should be killed, too.

“The predatory behavior displayed on Marines United and the follow-on threats to the journalist indicate that the site has been a refuge for the dishonorable few,” said Marine spokeswoman Capt. Ryan Elizabeth Alvis.

“We don’t know yet how many members of this site are active-duty Marines, nor how many have participated in sharing explicit photos, but the Marine Corps will continue to support NCIS and make every effort to hold perpetrators accountable,” Alvis added. “It is concerning that these predators hide behind the title Marine to fuel their prejudice and harassment.”

The Corps’ top enlisted leader, Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, said the scandal is forcing the service to “take a look in the mirror and decide whether we are part of the problem or the solution.”

“Stand up, speak out and be a voice of change for the better,” he wrote in a statement to the Union-Tribune. “Hold those who misstep accountable. We need to realize that silence is consent — do not be silent. It is your duty to protect one another, not just for the Marine Corps, but for humanity. … We must do a better job of teaching Marines what we expect of them in the social media realm. I expect all Marines to treat one another with dignity and respect, whether it be in public, behind closed doors or online.”

According to Marine Corps headquarters, any offending officers and enlisted troops could be prosecuted for a wide range of violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including Article 120C, which bans the distribution of indecent photos and videos.

The Corps cannot charge veterans who long ago left the service or other civilians who flocked to the Marines United forum.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, senior military adviser to the Virginia-based Marine Corps League, said his veterans service organization will await the findings from the new investigation before weighing in. “Our policy is to wait until are facts are known,” he said.

Green is slated to testify on Capitol Hill on Wednesday about the Marines United incident, but questions about a tolerated culture of abuse against women in the ranks have long dogged the Marines and other military branches.

The 1991 Tailhook Association scandal snared hundreds of Marine and Navy aviators following allegations that servicemen pawed women attending the Las Vegas convention. Following charges that military leaders tried to cover up the seriousness of the abuse, 14 flag officers lost their jobs and more than 300 officers saw their careers scuttled. The Pentagon reorganized the Navy’s criminal investigative system in the wake of the crisis.

The Army was rocked by its own sexual assault scandal in 1996 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. That triggered pledges by Army leaders to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment and abuse of women in the ranks.

Sexual assault scandals erupted in the Air Force at the service’s Colorado Springs academy in 2003 and at the San Antonio recruit training depot nine years later.

Between 2009 and 2012, 43 trainees at Lackland Air Force Base alleged they were sexually abused by drill instructors. The Air Force removed 35 instructors from their posts, prosecuted half of them and fired the colonel in charge of the training squadron.

At the end of 2012, the Department of Defense estimated that more than 26,000 service members experienced “unwanted sexual contact” annually.

In May, the Pentagon published its most recent annual report on sexual abuse and harassment in the military. It said in federal fiscal year 2015, nearly 6,100 victims reported being sexually abused by troops — double the number from 2007. Eighty-six percent of the alleged victims were service members themselves.

Kate Hendricks Thomas, a former Marine military police officer, recalled carrying a can of spray paint in her cargo pocket while on a base in Iraq to blot out violent and obscene graffiti slurring her. She said Corps leaders have tolerated for too long online abuse of women, including cyber-stalking and the distribution of “revenge porn” by former boyfriends and ex-husbands.

“The Marine Corps is culturally struggling,” said Thomas, who resigned her commission nearly five years ago and is now a behavioral health professor at Charleston Southern University. “We have fewer women in the Marine Corps than any of the other branches. We’re the last one to still do segregated training. Because of the segregated training, the Marine Corps still keeps women as ‘other.’”

Thomas, a board member for the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network, urged Corps leaders to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for future incidents like the Marines United scandal. She believes a small minority of active-duty Marines are likely involved in the online abuse, but said the harassment and marginalization of women has wider repercussions throughout American society.

“I laughed it off. I thought I could handle anything when I was in,” Thomas said. “But this is another reminder that you’re just not quite another Marine. You’re not quite part of the team.”

Helen Benedict, author of the 2009 book “The Lonely Soldiers” about U.S. service women who deployed to Iraq, said the Marines United cyber-bullying reached the level of “traitorous” misconduct.

“It sends the message that ‘we don’t respect you, we see you as nothing as sexual prey and we’re going to demean you as much as we can,’” Benedict said.

”When you go through military training, you are told to see the military as your family, and your comrades as your brothers. When they treat you like this, it is possibly the deepest betrayal you can have as human being,” she added.

cprine@sduniontribune.com

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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