By Thomas James Brennan
The U.S. Department of Defense is investigating hundreds of Marines who used social media to solicit and share hundreds — possibly thousands — of naked photographs of female service members and veterans.
Since Jan. 30, more than two dozen women – many on active duty, including officers and enlisted service members – have been identified by their full name, rank and military duty station in photographs posted and linked to from a private Facebook page.
In one instance, a female corporal in uniform was followed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, by a fellow Marine, who surreptitiously photographed her as she picked up her gear. Those photographs were posted on the Facebook group Marines United, which has nearly 30,000 followers, drawing dozens of obscene comments.
One member of the Facebook group suggested that the service member sneaking the photos should “take her out back and pound her out.” Others suggested more than vaginal sex:
Senior officials with Headquarters Marine Corps have verified that incident, as well as the distribution of photographs of other active-duty and veteran women through the page and links to a Google Drive.
The photo sharing began less than a month after the first Marine infantry unit was assigned women Jan. 5. It underscores ongoing problems of sexual harassment within military ranks and could hurt recruitment of women. Officials within the Defense Department confirmed it also puts service members at risk for blackmail and jeopardizes national security.
The activity on the Marines United page was uncovered by The War Horse, a nonprofit news organization run by Marine veteran Thomas Brennan. Within a day of Brennan contacting Marine Corps headquarters Jan. 30, social media accounts behind the sharing had been deleted by Facebook and Google at the Corps’ request, and a formal investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has been launched.
However, it is clear that the actions taken so far have not stopped the activity: Photos of the woman followed at Camp Lejeune were posted on Marines United on Feb. 16, more than two weeks after the linking accounts had been shut down. The Marine who shot those photos has been discharged from active duty, Marine Corps officials confirmed.
“We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and each other: This behavior hurts fellow Marines, family members, and civilians. It is a direct attack on our ethos and legacy,” Sgt. Maj. Ronald L. Green, the most senior enlisted Marine on active duty, wrote in an email response. “It is inconsistent with our Core Values, and it impedes our ability to perform our mission.”
The service is deeply concerned about the damage the incident could do to the Marines, according to a document provided to generals Friday warning them of the upcoming story.
The 10-page “Office of Marine Corps Communications Public Affairs Guidance” lists resources for victims, including a website to report crimes, and provides talking points for other media and members of Congress – who, it suggested, will want answers. It also outlines another possible blow to come: inappropriate responses from Marines.
“The story will likely spark shares and discussions across social media, offering venues for Marines and former Marines who may victim blame, i.e., ‘they shouldn’t have taken the photos in the first place,’ or bemoan that they believe the Corps is becoming soft or politically correct,” it said.
Facebook messages seeking comment sent today to Marines United’s current administrators were not returned. At least three of those listed on the page were aware of the activity: Two participated in comment strings about the photos and another “liked” one of them.
More than 2,500 comments about the photos were left by group members, many of whom used their personal Facebook accounts that include their names, ranks and duty stations. Some invited others to collect, identify and share photos of naked or scantily clad servicewomen. Based on their profiles, service members who participated in the photo sharing are stationed around the world — from Japan to North Carolina — and across military branches, from air wing to infantry.
Dozens of now-deleted Google Drive folders linked from the Facebook page included dossiers of women containing their names, military branches, nude photographs, screenshots of their social media accounts and images of sexual acts. Dozens of other subfolders included unidentifiable women in various stages of undress. Many images appear to have originated from the consensual, but private, exchange of racy images, some clearly taken by the women themselves.
After the accounts were deleted, the Marine Corps contacted the employer of the Marine veteran who initially posted the Google Drive link on Marines United. He was fired from his position as a government subcontractor in the United States, according to Maj. Clark Carpenter, a Marine Corps spokesman.
The War Horse has spoken with five of the women in the photographs. Two said they believe former partners might have leaked images. Some said they worry their own accounts might have been hacked or poached. One said a co-worker, a male Marine, alerted her to the fact that the photographs had been posted.
The corporal photographed at Camp Lejeune learned she had been stalked only after The War Horse sought comment from military officials. But she said she thinks she remembers the man. She spoke on condition of anonymity, nervous about reprisal and becoming more of a target.
“He was standing close enough to smell my perfume,” she said. “This is going to follow me – just like he did.”
The Marines United Facebook page has been around since 2015 and limits membership to male Marines, Navy corpsmen and British Royal Marines. The group has a code of conduct pinned to the top of its page: no discussing Marines United; no threats, harm or harassment; and no racist and illegal posts.
The initial link on the page to the image collection read:
Within one minute, commenters began posting: "Holy fuck, there is a god." The federal employee – the one who has since been fired – posted a response:
Some Marines promised free beer to contributors. Many tagged friends. One seemed to be tracking the number of photos submitted, writing, “Over 400 more pictures added,” to which he received the response, “Well Done Marine!”
“I know one of these chicks, her name is …” read another of the hundreds of comments. “Check her out boys.”
This distribution of photographs without the women’s consent can threaten their mental health, according to Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist, founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
“It impairs the ideal of a brotherhood and sisterhood, being able to count on somebody,” said Ochberg, who pioneered the post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis in 1980. “Within the military, this is a violation of family. … There are few organizations held to such esteem as the Marine Corps. They stand for honor, courage and commitment.
“This destroys honor. … This is sadistic. … This is disloyalty.”
In recent years, the armed forces have implemented programs and protocols to respond to reports of sexual harassment, assault and equal opportunity violations. But Marine Corps officials confirmed that none include procedures for dealing with sexual exploitation of this nature.
In 2013, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., brought a similar problem to the Marines’ attention, an incident noted in the public affairs document sent to generals Friday. In that case, comments denigrating women were posted on a Facebook page. Gen. James Amos, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, responded by citing the difficulties in monitoring and tracking social media to investigate offensive content, as well as inadequate funding.
Speier would have none of it, saying his response was “frankly unacceptable.”
Subsequently, the Marines posted an article defining Marine social media misconduct and mined Facebook, identifying “12 additional Marines allegedly linked to racist, sexist, and/or otherwise inappropriate social media misconduct,” the public affairs document says. “Information about these incidents were provided to unit commanders for appropriate action.”
The Marine Corps and Department of Defense aren’t the only federal agencies battling sexual exploitation.
In 2013, Julia Pierson was the first woman to be appointed as director of the U.S. Secret Service. During her tenure, Pierson faced congressional criticism for a security breach at the White House in 2014, and she worked to improve the agency’s image following a prostitution scandal involving 11 agents.
Pierson told The War Horse that her experiences with civilian law enforcement and the Secret Service have proven that “there’s always a double standard.” These images, she said, “aren’t going away and (next time) they’re going to have an entry fee.
“This is way beyond stupidity and boys being boys,” she said.
The Marines needs to take steps to restore the credibility of their organization, Pierson said.
“They need to realize that this is an entirely new threat,” she said. “This is a coordinated attack on the organization. … This is a hunting club.”
The War Horse submitted multiple requests for additional comment to the defense secretary and commandant of the Marine Corps. Both declined to comment on specifics of the situation, citing the ongoing investigation.
However, in his email, Green added additional perspective, repeatedly denouncing the “demeaning or degrading behavior” of Marines United members and encouraging Marines — and all service members — to be “a voice of change” for the better.
“As Marines, as human beings, you should be angry for the actions of a few,” Green wrote. “Ultimately we must take a look in the mirror and decide whether we are part of the problem or the solution.”
“We need to realize that silence is consent — do not be silent.”