This is the second of a three-part series about the silent epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the Department of Defense. Read part one here.
A Scandalous History
The distribution of explicit photos by servicemen is not a new or rare event.
It existed before the internet, immortalized in books like Anthony Swofford’s memoir, Jarhead. In the best-selling Gulf War memoir, Swofford recounts learning his girlfriend had been cheating on him and taping three “seminude” pictures of her to his Platoon’s “Wall of Shame,” where men had Duct taped images of 40 or more women. “Three are of Kristina in various seminude positions, the only piece of cloth covering her being my dress-blue blouse,” he wrote.
Around the same time 83 women and seven men reported being sexually assaulted by Navy and Marine officers over the course of three days during a 1991 aviation conference in Las Vegas. The Tailhook scandal, as the incident became known, rocked the military. Lt. Paula Coughlin was the first person to level accusations of sexual assault. The official report on Tailhook recounted her experience:
She was grabbed on the buttocks from behind with such force that she was lifted up off the ground. As she turned to confront the man, another man behind her grabbed her buttocks and she was pushed from behind into a crowd of men who collectively began pinching her body and pulling at her clothing. One man put both his hands down the front of her tank top, inside her brassiere and grabbed her breasts.
Initially, the Defense Department declined to place any responsibility on military officers. Only after facing pressure from Barbara S. Pope, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and other higher-level officials did the department conduct a second investigation and hold anyone accountable. No one was prosecuted.
Scandals involving sexual abuse and harassment in the military have continued to break every few years.
In 1996, a rape ring in the Army was uncovered. In 2003, the story broke that rampant sexual abuse at the Air Force Academy had been ignored or largely covered up by leadership there for a decade.
In-person harassment and abuse continues today. From day one of Marine Corps boot camp, women are branded with one of three labels: “bitch,” “lesbian,” or “whore,” Erika Butner, one of the Marines United victims, told the Democratic Women’s Working Group in early April.
Former Marine officer, Joy Craig, was targeted by false sexual rumors as a result of her status as a sexually active single woman, and the rumors worsened after the first of two sexual assaults during her service. “Once you are branded a slut in the Marine Corps, that is a really hard scarlet letter to take off.” The derogatory comments followed her throughout her 23 years of service, even as she climbed the ranks.
The internet, however, allows sexual harassment to escalate to a new level, and the relative permanency of the internet makes it nearly impossible for victims to escape revenge porn and harassing comments, and the damage to reputation that both can cause. A woman’s colleagues or superiors may easily find images of her—or seek them out—and the reputational damage caused by the pictures and comments may follow women throughout their careers. The damage to victims of online sexual exploitation isn’t isolated to their professional lives. Harassing commenters defame victims in public and semi-public forums, and vicious comments drive victims to make private or shut down their social media profiles.
The comments and identifying information about the servicewomen, including ranks and duty stations, also make it easier for service members to further invade their female counterparts’ personal and work lives by directly harassing and stalking them—whether in person, or through direct online contact.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
In several documented cases in the Marines United scandal, servicemen requested photographs of specific women they knew or had seen on base.
In response to investigations and hearings, members participating in similar Facebook groups are refining their tactics.
Five days after Marines United broke, a prominent commenter in a Marines United offshoot group posted a picture of a young female lance corporal wearing a bikini and lying on a beach. She’s looking into the camera. He identified her by name and rank. Someone replied to the picture, “Delete the name and rank fuckbag gotta change up the Mo here devil.”
The fourth comment on the post said, “God damn did we not learn anything?”
The commenter who had posted the photograph responded, “But did you die!? No pussies ! So [shut the fuck up].”
The group, now called The Himalayan Cult, is still active as of publication.
Marines United was not the first time Marines’ online behavior has raised alarm bells in Washington. In May 2013, Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., of the House Armed Services Committee, alerted the Secretary of Defense and the Commandant of the Marine Corps to a series of Facebook groups that degraded and harassed women. The sites collected thousands of comments that joked about raping and beating servicewomen, often linking to women’s personal pages.
Since 2013, the sites have flourished in plain sight.
Task & Purpose, a veteran culture site, wrote extensively about the issue in 2014, and noted that people who tried to have the pages taken down found little success. After Facebook removes a group, new ones crop up and quickly draw an audience.
Although the Corps identified 12 Marines for possible discipline after the 2014 Task & Purpose story, the upper echelons of the Marine Corps did not launch a branch-wide effort to tackle the proliferation of these groups or the culture that encourages them. Instead, “Information about these incidents were provided to unit commanders for appropriate action,” according to an internal HQ Marine Corps document leaked the day before Marines United broke, and which detailed the Corps’ public relations strategy for handling the scandal.
Marines United had survived one previous removal attempt before The War Horse’s investigation. John Albert, a Marine veteran, reported the group in September 2016. He was invited to join the group, and he was repulsed by what he saw. Facebook temporarily shut down the page in response to Albert’s report, and he created an anonymous post on Reddit to start a discussion about the problems he saw.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
“I am so incensed at the members of our Marine community that would let this go on unchecked,” Albert wrote at the time. “If you were part of the problem then you are an absolute disgrace to our dead brothers. You use the title of Marine to dishonor our Corps.”
Some Marines applauded his efforts to stop the wrongdoing, but many commenters called him a snitch and vowed to fight back.
“I can say with pure pride that MU [Marines United] is not only alive and well, but multiplying like a hydra,” one commenter responded that same day.