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General to Male Marines: 'How Much More Do Females of Our Corps Have to Do to be Accepted?'

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) welcomes Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller on Capitol Hill in Washington on March, 14, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that telling Marines to treat each other better in the wake of a nude photo-sharing scandal may sound like a “lame answer” for a solution, but the Corps has “got to change, and that’s on me.”

Gen. Robert Neller called the posting of photos of active-duty and veteran women Marines on social media sites “truly disturbing and unacceptable,” as well as comments posted with the photos that were “troubling, derogatory, demeaning and in some cases sexually violent comments about female Marines.”

“I received this recent news regarding actions on the Marines United Facebook site with a mixture of emotions: disappointment, shock, anger, disgust and outrage. The Marine Corps I’ve served for over 40 years has a problem and we intend to fix it,” Neller said.

Since Jan. 30 nude and explicit photos of more than two dozen identifiable active duty and veteran women, including officers and enlisted, have been distributed on the Marines United page and via Google Drive by their full name, rank and station. The photos were discovered and first reported by Marine veteran Thomas Brennan, who runs The War Horse and has received death threats since the news broke.

The thousands of nude or racy photos of female Marines were a mix of images taken surreptitiously without the women’s consent or photos that were taken in the context of private relationships and posted without consent.

“I struggle with labeling the problem we face,” Neller told the senators. “Some say we have a problem with our culture, some say it’s an insider threat. My natural inclination is to resist this because I believe in my heart the Marine Corps culture is based on our core values of honor, courage and commitment. It represents who we are. The online behavior of some individuals, whether they’re currently serving Marines, former Marines or others who simply wandered in have attacked our Marine Corps values, our ethos.”

Neller compared the situation to when he first entered the Marine Corps “with the problems of the ’70s, shortly after Vietnam, drug use and race relations were tearing us apart.”

“The vast majority of Marines …are good and decent people,” he added. “They are as upset by the behavior represented on Marines United as you and I, and I’m calling out all Marines to take a stand against this destructive conduct, to take a stand and support and respect every Marine.”

Male Marines, the general said, need to ask themselves, “How much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?”

“Was it enough when Major Megan McClung was killed by an IED in Ramadi? Or Captain Jennifer Harris killed when her helicopter was shot down while she was flying blood from Baghdad to Fallujah Surgical?” he said. “…What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines? I’m committed to making this right and I need all Marines equally committed. We all have to commit to getting rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough.”

Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley assured the committee that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is “working every lead, every path available to overcome the challenges we are running into posed by nameless, faceless predators and cyber bullying on social media.”

“Now what we’re trying to do is actually run to ground each instance, each example that we can find where we have the perpetrator, we have the evidence that frankly has been preserved. We can hold them accountable in accordance with Articles 120 and 134 of the UCMJ,” Stackley said. “…It’s very difficult to identify the individuals that are on these websites. And as we work with the owners of the websites, we have to deal with First Amendment rights. We have to deal with Privacy Act issues.”

The Marines currently have a policy on social media use, but Neller said education on the policy isn’t “done with enough time or reinforcement.”

In other cases, Stackley added, investigators have been able to track Marines using government computers for social media harassment. NCIS has yet found any government computer links to the Marines United scandal.

As of Monday, NCIS has received 53 calls on a tip line set up for information about the sites and individuals sharing the explicit photos.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has long been critical of the military’s procedures in sexual abuse cases, tore into Neller, noting a previous Corps scandal of social media exploitation of other Marines in 2013. “When you say to us ‘it’s got to be different,’ that rings hollow. I don’t know what you mean when you say that. Why does it have to be different? Because you all of a sudden feel that it has to be different? Who has been held accountable?” she said.

“If we can’t crack Facebook, how are you we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber hacking throughout our military?” Gillibrand added. “It is a serious problem when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life to this country in the way they have with no response from leadership.”

Neller said any commander who didn’t take action on allegations of sexual harassment or assault “would be held accountable.”

“As you clearly and rightfully state, this is a problem with our culture and I’m still in the — I mean, I don’t have a good answer for you. I’m not going to sit here and duck around this thing, I’m not. I’m responsible, I’m the commandant, I own this and we are going to have to — you know, you’ve heard it before, but we’re going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we do — how we treat each other,” the general continued.

“That’s — that’s a lame answer, but ma’am, that’s all — that’s the best I can tell you right now. We’ve got to change, and that’s on me.”

Neller told Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), “You would think after all the discussion and all the training and the things that we’ve done that people would understand that this type of behavior was unacceptable. But apparently whatever we’ve done or tried to do has not worked or we haven’t been clear, or people think that they can go on social media with some persona or avatar or character.”