Task Force to Investigate Cultural Roots of Alleged USMC Photo Sharing

US Marine with the Female Engagement Team, 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II stands in formation during a ceremony for the birthday of the Marines at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Paula Images)
US Marine with the Female Engagement Team, 1st Battalion 8th Marines, Regimental Combat team II stands in formation during a ceremony for the birthday of the Marines at Camp Delaram in Helmand province, Afghanistan. (Paula Images)

The commandant of the Marine Corps promised accountability for Marines found to have shared nude photos of female service members without their consent, and promised that a newly formed task force would address the service "culture or subculture" that spawned the illicit activity.

In a briefing to reporters at the Pentagon Friday, Gen. Robert Neller -- for the third time in less than a week -- publicly denounced the alleged activity on Marines United, a private Facebook group exposed March 4 in an investigative report.

"These allegations, they undermine everything we stand for as a Marine Corps and as Marines," he said. "Discipline, honor, professionalism and respect and trust amongst each other."

The task force, to be led by Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters, will ensure victims of the alleged photo-sharing and denigration receive adequate support and assistance, Neller said. It will also, he said, address underlying cultural issues that may have created a permissive environment for bad behavior online.

"They're going to look at what's going on while developing plans for corrective actions and recommendations for policies, procedures and education and training of Marines that will prevent this in the future," Neller said. "The culture that -- I'd say subculture -- that may have given rise to this."

When the Marine Corps first got a tip Jan. 30 from reporter Thomas J. Brennan about the Marines United page, the service acted quickly to shut it down, Neller said. To date, he said, the Corps is aware of fewer than 10 women who have come forward publicly to identify themselves as victims of the page, though Brennan has indicated he is aware of about 30.

Neller said he has spoken with Brennan, a medically retired Marine and Purple Heart recipient, and voiced his disgust that Brennan has reported being threatened by other Marines from the Facebook page.

"He's been threatened, which I find as disgusting as anything that somebody who would try to bring this to the attention would be attacked by other Marines," Neller said.

The question of the culture that motivated this alleged bad behavior has been the subject of much discussion. A veteran Marine officer, Kate Hendricks Thomas, told Military.com earlier this week that, as a deployed lieutenant, she used to carry around a can of black spray paint to obliterate explicit drawings of herself on the outhouses at the forward operating base she served on.

Harassment of female troops and veterans online isn't new either. Female Marine veterans told Military.com this week about incidents of having their photos shared and being targeted and harassed on Facebook that date back nearly 10 years.

Neller indicated he was, to an extent, blindsided by the current scandal.

"If you'd asked me two or three weeks ago what's my number one concern, it wouldn't be looking for websites where Marines are allegedly posting pictures of other Marines and making degrading, misogynistic, objectifying comments," he said. "I kind of thought we were getting ready to modernize the force."

At the same time, Neller said, he had been aware of reports of abusive behavior by Marines in 2013 and 2014 that caught the attention of Congress, and said any answer for why the Marine Corps did not act more decisively than would sound like an excuse.

"Thinking back, why wasn't I talking about this," he said. "I don't have a Facebook page, I don't do social media. I don't know what group or demographic in the Marine Corps is involved in this. I don't know if they think they're helping us. I don't know."

Neller acknowledged too, that an apparent problem with the way male Marines treated their female counterparts extended beyond the scope of the internet.

"It's not just on social media," he said. We've been fighting for 15 years. Men and women, side by side. I don't know what else [female Marines have] got to do to [have male Marines] say, 'yeah, good to go.'"

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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