The Marine Corps has no idea how to fix its nude-photo-sharing scandal, as even the service's top general seemed to admit in a press conference last week.
"I’m generationally-challenged here," said Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps. "My children help me try to understand this stuff.”
"Come on guys. [Female Marines] just want to do their job," a clearly-frustrated Neller told reporters. "Let ‘em do their job, and you do yours. And you know what, it’ll all work out.”
Unfortunately for Neller, and more importantly — for the 7% of women serving in the Marine Corps — it isn't all going to work out. The problem will continue to metastasize if top leaders don't face it head on.
That will be especially true if the service tries to sweep this latest scandal under the rug as it did in 2014, when the website Task & Purpose revealed active-duty Marines were harassing their female colleagues online with impunity.
When the commandant says this behavior is against the Corps' values, he's wrong. The problem of harassment of female Marines has existed for a long time, with little pushback from leadership. Only now it has gone online, and turned into a media frenzy.
With so few women in the ranks of a male-dominated, infantry-centric force, it's easy to see the roots of the problem. Former Marine Sgt. Alexander McCoy traced those roots back to the Corps' initial training, in an op-ed published last week in The New York Times:
"The message we got was clear: Female Marines are disgusting and worthless and physically unsuited for the service," McCoy wrote, citing segregated training units of male and female Marines.
I can't claim to be above the fray. As a former Marine infantryman, I am near certain that I've said negative things about female Marines. It's rather easy to do when you are completely segregated from them on base and hardly interact with any of them.
Take, for example, Camp Pendleton, California, the sprawling West Coast home of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. Though it has some 70,000 military and civilian personnel working on the base on any given day, its male-dominated infantry units are sequestered in its northern half.
When just seeing a woman in your area of the base is an anomaly, it's not all that surprising that some male Marines look at female Marines as outcasts, not worthy of any respect. That kind of view comes on top of the generally-unfavorable view that infantrymen have of anyone outside the combat arms' military occupation specialties. Infantry "grunts" call them pogues, or personnel other than grunt.
“It’s a shark tank. We don’t have the numbers to defend ourselves," Stephanie Kline, a former Marine officer, told me, echoing a point made by Maximilian Uriarte, a former enlisted Marine who has a large following among the active-duty ranks.
Kline shared one anecdote to demonstrate the uphill battle that many female Marines still face.
At one point in her career, for example, she was injured and thought she needed to get surgery. In a meeting with five other male Marines, her commander told her that he would need her to pull her pants down so that he could see the scars. Despite her and the others' shocked faces in the room, no one said a word.
"It was on me to just be cool about it," she said.
This should anger Gen. Neller.
It should anger Gen. Neller that there are Marines and veterans thumbing their nose at him by starting a "Marines United 2.0." It should anger Gen. Neller that some women in the ranks are "absolutely terrified" of reprisals if they speak out.
"I wanted my commandant to be pissed," Kline told me. "I wanted him to at least pretend to feel the frustration and pain and anger and humiliation that so many female Marines have gone through, and are going through.”
But that anger is not what Neller demonstrated. Instead, we saw a general who was confused by the problem, and seemingly more upset not by the behavior demonstrated by some of his male Marines, but by the fact that he had to address this scandal instead of taking a planned trip to Norway.
“If you asked me two or three weeks ago, what’s my number one concern, it wouldn’t be looking for websites where Marines are allegedly posting pictures of other Marines," Neller said. "I was gonna go to Norway this weekend, see a bunch of Marines above the arctic circle up there training ... instead I'm going to be up on Capitol Hill."
Respectfully sir, this is your problem.
Neller has taken ownership of the issue, which is commendable. But now it is time he forcefully condemn this behavior and stand up for the women in his ranks. Though this scandal apparently extends beyond the Corps, the Marine commandant has the chance to lead from the front and protect the Corps' most-precious resource: its people.
This isn't an impossible task. The Corps can take steps to address this issue immediately. First, Neller can push to integrate initial recruit and officer training. All other military branches have integrated their basic training schools, and there is no reason why the Corps cannot do the same. It should also eventually implement universal physical fitness standards for male and female Marines, so everyone knows they are on the same playing field.
Second, the Corps should attack this problem just like it did with the problem of drug use. Before the Pentagon adopted a "zero tolerance" approach to drugs, the Corps in 1980 saw nearly 50% of its Marines acknowledging illegal drug use in the previous year. The number of personnel admitting to using drugs in 2008 for the entire military was less than 3%.
It's obvious that the message — we will kick you out of the military if you use drugs — has been heard loud and clear. But, as this latest scandal shows, there are plenty of male service members harassing their female colleagues online with little fear of repercussion.
Still, before Neller makes any changes, if any, he needs to listen to his female Marines.
He needs to get in a room, and speak with the female Marine corporal who was allegedly stalked by a male Marine on her base at Camp Lejeune. Neller needs to speak with the female Marines who have contributed to success on the battlefield, such as the female-engagement-teams that helped in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And he needs to make it clear that he truly has their back. He needs to show male Marines that he is not going to tolerate what some of their colleagues have done, while showing female Marines that he's going to stand up for them, no matter what.
He can't just ask them to trust him. He needs to earn that trust.
Here's what Neller should say:
"To the women who serve alongside me: You are Marines. You have served our Corps for nearly 100 years. We could not do what we do without your contribution to the Marine Corps. I am going to do everything within my power to investigate this and ultimately, do what is right. That's what you deserve. I won't let you down.
And to the male Marines who engage in what appears to be a disgusting cyber-stalking campaign: Know this. You are not Marines. You are not worthy of my uniform. If you think it's okay to denigrate the service of another Marine, you shouldn't be doing it while wearing an eagle, globe, and anchor. There is absolutely no place for you within our Corps, and I will do everything in my power to find you and weed you out."
The general is set to testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Let's hope some anger finally comes out.
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