Officials are scrambling to figure out how to hold to account Marines – both active duty and retired personnel – involved in non-consensual sharing of naked photos on the closed Facebook group Marines United. On Tuesday, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., suggested stripping benefits from veterans who participated. The same day, in response to the revelations, the U.S. Marine Corps released an updated social media directive for active-duty personnel regarding how to behave when engaging in unofficial internet activity.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Assistant Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley during a special hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday if active-duty personnel engaged in “transmitting, receiving, viewing, possession” of photographs of a similar nature to those shared in the Marines United Facebook group would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Stackley replied that they would.
The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was held just over a week after Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and The War Horse broke the news that some members of the closed, males-only Facebook group Marines United were collecting and distributing images of servicewomen in various stages of undress without their consent.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller reiterated that he took the online behavior seriously and that he and Corps leadership are dedicated to making change. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., questioned his pledge.
Gillibrand spoke sternly, and throughout the course of her questioning her voice grew louder and angrier. “I have to say, when you say to us, ‘It’s got to be different,’ that rings hollow. I don’t know what you mean when you say that. Why does it have to be different? Because you all of a sudden feel that it is has to be different? Who has been held accountable?”
She continued, “I can tell you; your answers today are unsatisfactory. They do not go far enough. And I would like to know what you intend to do to the commanders who are responsible for good order and discipline.” Gillibrand finished by asking how Neller and the Corps would respond.
There was a pause. He began to answer, pausing after a few sentences, and then said: “I don’t have a good answer for you. I’m not going to sit here and duck around this thing. I’m not. I’m responsible. I’m the commandant. I own this. And we are going to have – I know you’ve heard it before – but we’re going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we do – how we treat each other. That’s a lame answer, but ma’am, that’s all I – that’s the best I can tell you right now. We’ve got to change. And that’s on me.”
Vietnam Veterans of America and Not In My Marine Corps both submitted statements for the record. Not In My Marine Corps launched two days after the Marines United scandal broke, and the group is inviting survivors of sexual assault, harassment, discrimination and abuse in the military to share their stories. Vietnam Veterans for America president expressed his disgust.
“It’s hard to imagine how someone in uniform could have so little respect for their colleagues and for their service that they would engage in this despicable campaign of cyber bullying. Yet, as the shock wears off, we are unsurprised by this ugly news,” wrote John Rowan, the national president and CEO of Vietnam Veterans for America.
During Tuesday’s hearing, McCain asked Neller what NCIS and the Corps leadership are doing to encourage other women who have been victimized to come forward. Neller pointed to the Armed Services Committee hearing as a demonstration of the Corps’ commitment to addressing sexual assault, harassment and discrimination. He also mentioned a press conference he held at the Pentagon addressing the Corps on March 10, nearly a week after the story broke. Tip lines are open, Neller said, and he would urge commanders to be receptive to reports of such abuse.
Stackley called the revelations “a bell ringer.” Military leadership plans to address the issue in every branch, he said, stating that on this the military would not “go backwards.” He affirmed when asked by McCain about how active-duty personnel would be held responsible that the Uniform Code of Military Justice could be invoked.
Echoing a video statement he made last week published by the Corps, Neller again asked that female Marines trust him, and trust that the Corps leadership will take action.
“I ask you to trust me personally as your commandant. And when I say I’m outraged that many of you haven’t been given the same respect when you earned the title Marines,” Neller testified. “To the men in our Corps, serving today and those who no longer wear the uniform, you’re still Marines. I need you to ask yourselves, how much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?”