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After explicit photo scandal, Marine Corps grapples with culture of disrespect for women

A year ago, hundreds of current and former Marines were exposed as having posted explicit photos of women, including female Marines, along with degrading or abusive comments, on a private Facebook group. Senior leaders in the Corps vowed to punish those involved and to root out a culture of misogyny revealed by the scandal. William Brangham reports on what’s happened since then.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It was one year ago that the so-called Marines united scandal broke. Hundreds of current and former Marines were posting explicit photos of women, including female Marines on a private Facebook group.

    Senior leaders in the Corps vowed to punish those involved, and to root out a culture of misogyny further revealed by this scandal.

    William Brangham is back with this report about what happened, and how Marine leaders are trying to stop it.

  • And a warning:

    This report contains some graphic images.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It was called Marines United, a private Facebook group of roughly 30,000 current and former Marines. There and at other social media sites like it, countless photos of women were uploaded, including explicit personal photos like these, which were often then followed by a torrent of degrading sexual comments and threats.

    Thomas Brennan spent 10 years in the Marines, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is now a journalist, and he's the one who first broke the story on his investigative news site, The War Horse.

    SGT. THOMAS BRENNAN (RET.), The War Horse: They were crowdsourcing. If you had slept with this woman before and had photos, they wanted you to upload that without that person's permission.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    So, these were consensually explicit photos two people might have shared with each other in the course of their relationship…

  • SGT. THOMAS BRENNAN:

    Exactly.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    … now being put into this very public forum.

  • SGT. THOMAS BRENNAN:

    Exactly.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The discovery of the contents of the Marines United Facebook page, and many other sites like it, set off a wide-ranging investigation by the Marine Corps.

    But questions remain on whether the Marines can police themselves and whether they have actually put a stop to this behavior.

  • MAJ. JANINE GARNER, U.S. Marine Corps:

    They ranged anywhere from calling us sluts and bitches, to talking about wanting to sexually assault us, and doing all number of sexual things to us, with or without our consent.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Marine Major Janine Garner flies KC-130s, those midair refueling planes. She and a number of other officers took a group picture at lunch, and Garner posted it online. A couple months later, it appeared on another one of these private group sites.

  • MAJ. JANINE GARNER:

    How can I look to the Marine to the right and the left of me and sit there and wonder, were you one of the ones who said you wanted to rape me? Were you one of the ones who said I was bitch?

    It erodes everything that we stand for and it goes completely against our core values. How can the American public trust us?

    GEN. ROBERT NELLER, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps: If you're in my unit, and I'm going to post things about you on social media because of your gender, your ethnicity, your sexual preference, no, that's not acceptable.

    So, you own that space.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    General Robert Neller is the commandant of the Marine Corps, its most senior officer. Neller visited Marine bases nationwide to address the scandal, which he says isn't just about online behavior; it's about basic respect for women in the Corps.

  • GEN. ROBERT NELLER:

    And the way we treat them is not acceptable. And if you think that is — if you think that's bull (EXPLETIVE DELETED), go ask them.

    I don't believe we have, in the aggregate, valued and respected the contribution or participation of women in our Corps.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    When you first about Marines United, were you surprised?

  • CAPT. JUSTINE ELENA, U.S. Marine Corps:

    I wasn't surprised. And I think that's what's really sad.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Captain Justine Elena is in the Marine Reserves and she works as an audience coordinator at Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Trevor Noah."

    Seven years ago, she was active-duty, a lieutenant deployed in Afghanistan. She says Marines United wasn't a surprise because she knew of many examples of sexual harassment and assault not being taken seriously.

    On her first assignment overseas, she says a male Marine, one who was junior to her in rank, sexually groped her at a social event, as if it was totally normal.

  • CAPT. JUSTINE ELENA:

    I remember that feeling of like, oh, my gosh, this shouldn't be happening, but not doing anything and just moving away and pretending like nothing happened and in my head thinking like, no, this is — this is something that I have to just be able to deal with, because I decided to join this boys club.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Military investigators concluded that 55 members of the Marines Corps broke the rules. Seven Marines were court-martialed. Six others were kicked out. Another 42 received minor punishments. None of them were in a command position.

    The Corps has now changed its social media policy, and now instructs all Marines on appropriate online behavior.

  • MAN:

    You got the brief, you got the training.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The Corps believes its plan to add more women to leadership roles will also help, and they have started additional training during boot camp and beyond. They have also set up a task force to issue recommendations.

  • GEN. ROBERT NELLER:

    I admit I was ignorant of all the stuff that was going on. I'm not anymore.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Do you think enough people have been held responsible for their actions?

  • GEN. ROBERT NELLER:

    Where the evidence was there, those people were held accountable.

    REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), California: This is about a cultural rot that exists not just in the Marines, I might add, but all the military services.

    Sexual assault in our military and military service academies…

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Congresswoman Jackie Speier, Democrat from California, has been trying to get the Marines to deal with these problems for years.

  • REP. JACKIE SPEIER:

    … makes a mockery of the stated policy.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The Marine Corps back in 2013, says, we're going to address this. And yet here I am talking to you years later. What does that tell you?

  • REP. JACKIE SPEIER:

    It tells me what we have happening in the military all the time, which is, we will say exactly what they want to hear, and then do nothing.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Last April, Congresswoman Speier held a hearing with Marines whose photos appeared on Marines United.

    Marine veteran Erika Butner said degrading attitudes about women were taught from the very beginning of her service.

  • ERIKA BUTNER, U.S. Marine Veteran:

    As a woman Marine, we were told we get three stereotypes to pick from: a bitch, you're a whore, or you're a lesbian.

  • WOMAN:

    Well, who tells you that?

  • ERIKA BUTNER:

    Our drill instructors.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    We heard the same from another Marine veteran, Alexander McCoy, who said male recruits got the same message.

    SGT. ALEXANDER MCCOY (RET.), U.S. Marine Veteran: It was always in the context of them as sexual objects, that we needed to stay away from. They're gross, and that they're so disgusting that you can't — that you shouldn't go near them.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    This is Marine drill instructors telling you about other Marine recruits?

  • SGT. ALEXANDER MCCOY:

    That's right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That just happen to be women.

  • SGT. ALEXANDER MCCOY:

    Right. The conversation is always about, if you bring women in, they will have sex. It's like a medieval mind-set.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    At that same hearing, Lance Corporal Marisa Woytek spoke of how she was victimized initially by Marines United, but was then abused again when she spoke up.

  • LCPL. MARISA WOYTEK, U.S. Marine Corps:

    Within the past 24 hours alone, I have had former Marines harass me online and say and state that they are actively looking for explicit pictures of me.

    One of the former Marines who has been harassing me has gone as far as saying he would even throw an active duty female Marine into a barrel of acid.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    What do you say to those women who think that, if they stick their neck out and say, this happened to me, that they're only inviting even more abuse?

  • GEN. ROBERT NELLER:

    You have to trust — you got to trust the institution to do the right thing. Otherwise, we're not going to change. The things won't change. So, sometimes, change requires people to take a stand. And are there consequences to that? Sure.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In response to this scandal, Marine Reservist Justine Elena started a group called Female Marines United. Its goal is to raise money for mental health support for service members who've been victimized.

  • CAPT. JUSTINE ELENA:

    They need to know that they're not alone. We already know that some of them are afraid to speak up. But we need to let them know that there's more people behind them than there are against them.

  • MAJ. JANINE GARNER:

    I believe misogyny is a taught behavior. So I believe that it is also a behavior that we can teach away from.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    To that end, the Marines say they're trying to integrate the sexes more in boot camp, and drive out leadership that perpetuates any form of misogyny.

  • GEN. ROBERT NELLER:

    If people hold those views, then we don't want them to be drill instructors. Does that mean everyone's going to comply? No, it doesn't. And that's why there's accountability. That's why you have the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That's why we have commanders.

  • SGT. THOMAS BRENNAN:

    If this has existed in the Marine Corps for years, and we haven't policed ourselves enough to get rid of it, then how is this time going to be different? And I guess I will have to wait to see how it turns out to be different.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The Marines say they have now set up a permanent office to focus on culture and gender issues. And the Defense Department recently issued new guidelines for all the services on reporting and investigating sexual harassment and bullying.

    But despite all that, it seems this troubling behavior continues. Just today, it was easy to find numerous other sites online where people are uploading explicit photos of female Marines and posting violent, degrading things about them.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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