About two months after a sexual harassment and cyber bullying scandal first rocked the Marine Corps, those issues continued to buffet the service Thursday.
At the Marine boot camp in San Diego, officials were working with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to track down a man who allegedly used sexually graphic language to demean a female veteran online. The suspect had identified himself as a Marine corporal on his Facebook page.
In Oceanside, civil rights attorney Gloria Allred held a news conference with two victims of the original scandal to accuse Pentagon and congressional leaders of conducting a weak investigation into the misconduct. She also asserted that military commanders were attempting a face-saving effort instead of instituting significant reforms.
Allred said she convened the news conference in the shadow of Camp Pendleton to prod Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, to press for more changes — and to do so more quickly. Neller visited the sprawling base Thursday.
The new investigation and Allred’s comments marked the latest chapter since a private Facebook forum called Marines United was outed as allowing postings of sexually suggestive or explicit photos of female service members, often done without their knowledge or consent. Members of the forum, both active-duty military personnel and veterans, often made lewd and otherwise offensive remarks in those postings. When some of the victims learned about this activity and complained, they were bullied or subjected to various threats.
Pentagon and Marine leaders, the NCIS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice and law-enforcement authorities in several states are working together to find and prosecute Marines United violators. Active-duty troops can face discipline through the Uniform Code of Military Justice, while certain civilian laws might apply to the offending veterans.
Facebook has shut down the Marines United forum, but some of its former members have repeatedly opened new social-media accounts to keep posting the images and engaging in their sexually denigrating remarks.
The case involving Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego concerns a Facebook page called “MCRD San Diego, Ca.” Although the site uses an official MCRD telephone number as its contact information, Marine officials said it has no connection to the military.
On Monday, the page had posted an image of a Marine wearing Dress Blues. Underneath the photograph were these words: “Making panties drop since 1775.”
Screenshots provided to the Marine Corps’ inspector general reveal a female Marine veteran complaining about the posting as “garbage.” That comment triggered salty responses from other members of the page, and one person — wearing a Dress Blue uniform in his profile picture — allegedly used words that military officials suspect violate the Corps’ standards for social media use.
MCRD spokesman Capt. Matthew Finnerty said those standards, issued throughout the Marine Corps in March in the wake of the Marines United scandal, bars “any form of harassment, discrimination or hazing” because it’s “inconsistent with our core values and impedes our ability to perform our mission.”
The unnamed administrator of the “MCRD San Diego, Ca” page on Facebook didn’t return messages seeking comment for this story. The person who allegedly typed the illegal response to the female Marine veteran also couldn’t be located. It’s still unclear whether he’s an active-duty serviceman.
The case comes three weeks after the Corps announced that a non-commissioned officer and a lower-ranking enlisted member of Camp Pendleton’s 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment had pleaded guilty to making improper comments on United States Grunt Corps, an online community that sprang up after the demise of Marines United.
In Oceanside, the two Marines United victims appearing with Allred were former Marine Erika Butner and Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek, an aviation mechanic at Camp Pendleton.
Butner challenged the Corps’ reports that 27 to 29 active-duty and reserve service members had been identified by investigators in the Marines United case, saying those figures were too low. At its peak, the Facebook forum claimed about 30,000 members.
Butner also said sales of nude pictures in the “online criminal marketplace with ties to Russia” could make the affected female service members and their uniformed relatives who work with classified information “vulnerable to blackmail or worse.”
And she alleged that the military harbors a “rape culture” created when a male-dominated institution teaches women “to take the abuse” and remain silent. During boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, Butner said drill instructors gave female recruits three images to adopt during their Marine careers.
“You’re a bitch. You’re a whore. Or you’re a lesbian,” she said. “Then you have to pick, essentially.”
Woytek told reporters about the stories that “hundreds” of service women had shared with her or in online forums about abuse in the ranks. She said many of those victims are still “too terrified to come forward.”
“As someone who has spoken out and who has received backlash on social media, I understand their worry,” Woytek said.
Allred urged the military to beef up its regulations barring cyber bullying, Congress to pass legislation that promises to bar the circulation of naked images without the subject’s permission, and both institutions to listen to the experiences of female service members victimized by the photo-sharing sites. She also called on the Marine Corps to speed up integration of women into all its training and units.
Capt. Ryan Alvis, a Marine spokesman, said the task force convened by Neller to root out “an underlying subculture that has allowed disrespect to exist in our ranks” continues to craft a plan designed to “eradicate the disrespectful attitudes and behaviors of some Marines.”
“The vast majority of Marines live our ethos, and a part of that ethos is to correct and hold accountable those Marines who don’t,” Alvis said. “Marines don’t degrade their fellow Marines. Marines don’t disrespect or discriminate based on gender, religious affiliation, sexuality or race. The Marine Corps owns this problem and is committed to addressing it for the long term.”
The Corps has yet to establish a timeline for when all of its revised standards on these issues will be rolled out.
©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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