Neller: Marines 'in better place' since sexual misconduct scandals
WASHINGTON — Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marines, told a Senate panel on Thursday that the Corps has enacted a series of reforms to reign in the culture of harassment that has included sexual misconduct and long plagued the service.
Neller said the service has made significant progress installing the reforms since the “Marines United” scandal last year involving a Facebook group exchanging nude photos of female servicemembers.
Neller’s comments follow the dismissal Monday of a Marine brigadier general who told a large gathering that a sexual harassment complaint at his command was “fake news.”
“They are not the majority. They are not even close to the majority and yes, you should expect more from a more senior officer,” Neller told the Senate panel. “Are we where we want to be? Are we where you want us to be? No. Are we in a better place than we were a year ago? I believe we are.”
The comments were part of a wide-ranging discussion during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that hosted top Navy and Marine Corps officials to talk about budget priorities for 2019.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat for the committee, turned the hearing toward the sexual misconduct concerns, highlighting the Marines United scandal, among others.
“You are not the only service facing this but some of these have been quite notorious,” Reed said. “Are you addressing a culture that might be contributing to this issue?”
In March 2017, a now-defunct Facebook page called Marines United with an estimated 30,000 followers was uncovered. Active-duty and veteran Marines were exchanging nude photos of female servicemembers, making derogatory comments and even threats in some cases on the webpage. Two commanders were fired in connection with the scandal in August, and more than 30 Marines have since faced reprimands.
Last month, an investigation was launched into allegations that hundreds of lewd images of servicewomen was shared online via Dropbox.
“Aside from those events, as disturbing as they are, I think today you look at our Marine Corps …we are as diverse, as integrated and inclusive as we’ve ever been,” Neller told Reed. “I would give credit to members of this committee for holding the mirror up and making us look at ourselves and ask ourselves some hard questions.”
Neller said he has led significant changes since the Marines United scandal, as the service has clarified policies, rules and regulations so Marines know what’s expected of them. The service also had to clarify to commanders what they could do to hold perpetrators of sexual misconduct accountable, he said.
Neller rejects excuses that the misconduct is a result of the service’s younger population.
“In my heart of hearts, I have gone out and talked to thousands and thousands and thousands of Marines and I’m not going to use it as an excuse that 62 percent of the Marine Corps is 25 years old or less,” the commandant said. “But it’s going to take us some time and I assure you, I give you my word that anyone who does violate the rules regardless of whether they are a general or a private, they are going to be held accountable.”
The service is also in the midst of revising officer evaluation reports to include a new category that addresses diversity, Neller said. For now, such feedback on personnel is limited to the narrative in the reports.
“We’re in a tough business and it’s taken some people some adjustments,” he said. “Those who can’t adjust, they are going to have to either get on board or get out.”
Neller also addressed his dismissal of Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein.
The former director of Marine and Family Programs, which handles sexual assault prevention and response, made derogatory remarks about a sexual harassment complaint in a speech before hundreds at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Stein was reassigned to a new post following an internal investigation of his remarks at the April 6 meeting.
“I had to say I didn’t have confidence in (Stein) to lead the organization,” Neller said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Caitlin Doornbos contributed to this report.