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Photo Scandal Hampers Effort to Improve Marine Corps Culture

Major Misty Posey leads a 2016 class for Marine Corps leaders about integrating women into combat roles.
Lance Cpl. Harley Robinson
U.S. Marine Corps
Major Misty Posey leads a 2016 class for Marine Corps leaders about integrating women into combat roles.

Revelations that hundreds of Marines shared lewd photos of women come as military leaders fight an ongoing battle to change the culture of the Marines.

The Marines are famous for their close-knit team spirit, a cohesion that Marine leaders say the Corps' recent photo sharing scandal has undermined.

Photographs of female Marines, some of them explicit, were passed around on social media by male Marines and veterans. Some of the women apparently did not know they were being photographed. The images were shared in a Facebook group which has more than 30,000 members.

The existence of the photos was revealed by Thomas Brennan, a North Carolina investigative journalist.

In a video posted by the Pentagon after the revelations, Marine Commandant General Robert Neller was blunt.

"We are all-in 24/7," Neller said, "and if that commitment to your excellence interferes with your 'me time,' or if you can't or are unwilling to commit to contributing 100 percent to our Corps' war fighting ability by being a good teammate and improving cohesion and trust, then I have to ask you, 'Do you really want to be a Marine?'"

But comments posted under online stories about the scandal make it clear that some Marines disagree, like this one in the Marine Corps Times:

"How bout giving homage to a female that takes care of her body and looks good? We can do that anymore?"

The Marine Corps says people with attitudes like that are a minority. But while all the service branches have had gender discrimination issues, some observers say the Marines in particular have a boy's club tone.

"It's not just a Marine Corps problem but I think is probably the worst case of it, the worst of example of it's in the Marine Corps," said Ellen Haring, a retired Army colonel and one of the earliest female graduates of West Point. She now does research on gender integration in the military.

Haring cited a Rand Corporation study in 2014 that found Marine women experience the highest rates of sexual assault in the military. And she notes that this isn't the first time Marine men have been caught sharing inappropriate photos.

Haring says a big part of the problem is that the Marines are the only service that separates men and women for many of the physical parts of boot camp.

"Women are put into their own separate little battalion," Haring said. "The training isn't as tough and their standards aren't as high, and so when they graduate they become the targets."

"Somebody once said it's like having an asterisk by your name; you're a Marine and not the real Marine."

Men and women are together for more than 60 percent of boot camp, including classes, said Captain Gregory Carroll, a spokesman for Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, where all female recruits and many male recruits go for basic training.

Men are trained there to treat female Marines as equals, he said.

"Throughout recruit training, there's what we call core value guide discussions that are led by the senior drill instructor," Carroll said. "He's going to explain to them what is right and what is wrong and develop that individual not only into a basic-trained Marine but into an ethical warrior."

Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold agreed with the commandant that the men sharing the photos weren't behaving like real Marines.

"It really is deeply offensive that a Marine would treat another Marine like this," he said.

Fixing it will take strong support from officers, Newbold said, but he also said the misogyny can be erased from the Corps' culture only by the front-line enlisted leaders, like sergeants and corporals.

"They are the role model for behavior, and they have the opportunity to stop this," Newbold said.

The scandal comes as the Marines are trying to boost the number of women in their ranks, long stalled at around seven percent.

The Army's percentage of women is about twice as high, and The Navy and Air Force are even higher. A year ago, Neller he wanted to get the Marines to ten percent women.

With this scandal, reaching that goal got harder.

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit .

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.