Marines

Among Marine Vets Targeted By Facebook Groups, a Plea for Change

Tegan remembers the group photo, taken at a "dining out" night hosted by her Camp Pendleton, California, squadron just before she deployed to Iraq in early 2008.

She and another female noncommissioned officer in the front of the shot had struck a glamour pose, hiking their dress blue uniform skirts above the knee.

She gave it little thought until she got an email in Iraq from her sergeant, a woman, informing her that the photo had been posted to "Just The Tip, Of The Spear," a Facebook page with a military audience notorious for posting pictures of female service members for mockery or sexual commentary.

Commenters on the post joked that the Marines were demonstrating how a woman could get promoted, and made crude comments about their poses and appearance. And everyone, it seemed, had seen the photo and read the comments.

Superiors confronted her about the photo and dressed her down; colleagues whispered about it on the flightline. Her father, a career soldier, heard about the incident. Her reputation suffered.

"It was awful. There was nothing I could do about it," said Tegan, an aircraft maintenance administration specialist who left the Corps in 2009. She asked that her last name not be used for fear of harassment.

In the wake of news that the military is investigating members of another private Facebook group, Marines United, for posting and sharing nude and compromising photos and personal information of female troops and veterans without their consent, Tegan and other female Marines are sharing their own stories of being harassed and objectified online by their male counterparts -- incidents that stretch back as far as a decade.

Kate Campbell, a former military police officer who left the Marine Corps as a corporal in 2012, said she was shocked to find an innocuous picture of herself in uniform during a deployment posted to "Just The Tip, Of The Spear," with an invitation for members to add their own captions. In the comments, users -- many of them active-duty Marines -- made explicit comments about her body and whether they'd want to have sex with her.

"It was eye-opening. I went down a rabbit hole," Campbell told Military.com. "I was clicking on these names, and I know these guys. There were Marines in ranks higher and lower than me. These guys are supposed to be your brothers."

Campbell's photo was posted to the Facebook group in 2010, and she didn't discover it until the following year. She opted to let the incident blow over and move on, but it changed her feelings about the service as a whole, she said.

"It did make me feel like the Marine Corps wasn't what I thought it was anymore," she said. "Walking through the chow hall and going, how many of these guys are going online, s---ing all over their fellow service members. They don't have my back. I kind of grew pretty disillusioned."

Marine Corps leaders have previously acknowledged the existence of Facebook groups in which Marines demean their female colleagues.

In 2013, then-Commandant Gen. Jim Amos responded to a letter from Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, promising to enforce social media standards and examine the possibility of creating a sort of digital "off-limits" list, though such a move never materialized.

According to media guidance circulated in the wake of the most recent investigation into Marines United, 12 Marines were reported to their commands for correction after a 2014 Task & Purpose report on the group, though it's not clear what, if any, punishment they faced.

This time around, the Marine Corps seems to be striking a different tone. Both Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green have released statements condemning the online harassment of female troops by their peers and challenged the Corps to do better.

On Monday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was to be briefed on the matter by Neller in coming days. The investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is ongoing, though it's unclear exactly how many active-duty Marines from the 30,000-member Marines United group are caught up in it.

Mattis "finds the allegations troubling" but wanted to avoid comment to allay any inference of "undue command influence" that could derail potential cases stemming from the investigation, Davis said.

"Marine Corps leadership is actively discussing this incident because the behavior on the site undermines our core values and needs to be addressed," Capt. Ryan Alvis, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, told Military.com on Monday. "The predatory behavior displayed on Marines United and the follow-on threats to the journalist indicate that the site has been a refuge for the dishonorable few. We have to do a better job of identifying them should they exist in our ranks."

Tegan believes a more holistic and thoughtful approach is needed. Though she once hoped to make a career of the Corps, she got out in 2009, partly because her experience with the photo had left a bad taste in her mouth. But six years later, she was shocked to learn that the same photo, with the faces of the men blurred out but the women still visible, was being used in a slide presentation at a social media training for staff noncommissioned officers at Quantico, as an example of what not to post online. In the presentation, she -- and not the Facebook group and its users -- was the problem.

"It's brought all of this back up for me, and this time I just want to go to the Marine Corps and say, 'Why haven't you addressed this?'" she said. "I really feel that they have the chance to get this right this time and set the precedent."

Now 32 and a full-time student working on her bachelor's degree in public relations at the University of Wisconsin, Tegan said she would like to see Marine leaders partner with veterans' groups and professional associations to ensure that vets as well as active-duty troops get the message that online harassment is out of step with the service's code of honor.

These days, Campbell monitors a private Facebook group for female Marines that serves, among other things, as an internal defense for online harassment. When nude photos or compromising images are shared on pages such as Marines United or Just The Tip, group members will post an alert, allowing other members to check out the content and make sure they and their friends are not being targeted. When Campbell saw the Reveal News report about the Marines United investigation, her first feeling was relief.

"I think these guys should be held accountable, but I also think there should be a deep look into the Marine Corps and the soul of the veteran community," she said. "I think it brings shame on the men and women who don't have to sit at a keyboard and dehumanize women to feel better about themselves."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.