In the summer of 2014, I spent about six weeks reviewing the kind of targeted harassment of female Marines on social media that has generated national headlines this week. Back then, the harassment was a bit of an open secret in the Marine Corps, unlike the kind of thing my fellow Marine veteran Thomas Brennan exposed in his powerful piece in Reveal.
It lived out in the open, in public-facing pages. Three or four similarly branded pages had, in aggregate, more than 100,000 followers. I had first heard of these sites in 2009, when I was a young private first class in the Marine Corps. Everyone knew they existed; no one did anything to stop them.
What followed in August 2014 was a nearly 7,000-word accounting of the behavior that occurred on those pages, the Marines who conducted the harassment under their real names and faces, and the Marine Corps’ response to the issue.
First came memes and empty threats. Administrators for these pages and their fans took photos of me from the internet. They created a hashtag, #fuckyoubrian, that they tagged in their posts. They made Facebook and Twitter profiles impersonating me. They posted comments claiming to know my address. Then it escalated.
The page administrators began reviewing my list of friends on Facebook, targeting women who I was connected to who appeared to be in the Marines, and taking their photos off of their Facebook profiles. They would post these photos and invite their followers to comment on the woman’s appearance or harass her. Then, they managed to find the phone number of a woman who worked at my company, herself an Army veteran and a mother. They posted her photos and her telephone number and encouraged their followers to call her. People did indeed call her and leave vulgar and threatening voicemails.
What struck me about the scandal back then still sticks with me now: Its followers really cared about it. They seemed to treasure their ability to target these women. That’s why they went after me.
The Marine Corps’ response to my story three years ago was next to nil. My initial media inquiry was met with a carefully worded statement. Attempts to ask questions were denied. There was no statement from the commandant, the sergeant major, and the secretary of defense that we are seeing as a response to Brennan’s report. I guess that’s what progress looks like?
As a Marine veteran, I find the persistence of these pages disheartening. What does it say about the ability of women to serve in the Marine Corps that they are targeted because of their gender in this relentless and systemic manner?
My favorite sentiment in the piece I wrote came from a fellow Marine veteran, former Capt. Anu Bhagwati, who at the time was the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. She dismissed the argument that the conduct of those pages amounted to “barracks talk” and that “boys will be boys.”
“It creates the idea that servicemen have no morals, and they’re completely incapable of respecting or working with women,” Bhagwati said. “It’s not true.”
I loved that quote because it demanded professionalism and excellence from the Marines. That’s what being a Marine is all about. The Marine Corps should be able to integrate women into combat roles, because Marines are professional and capable, the thinking goes. That should be the expectation. In the wake of Brennan’s report, it feels we are very far away from that goal, indeed.
They would rather attack a combat-decorated Marine veteran than be confronted with their own behavior. Why?
What struck me about the scandal back then still sticks with me now: Its followers really cared about it. They seemed to treasure their ability to target these women. That’s why they went after me. That’s why they would stick with the Facebook pages after they would be shut down over, and over, and over again. And that’s why, after the attention my article generated, they went underground, into a private Facebook group. It begs a critical question: Why is it so important to some Marines that they be allowed to harass women? It seems sexism is so ingrained in the military that they would attack someone for attempting to point it out.
The backlash to my article was echoed in the reaction to Brennan’s later piece. I know Brennan from his time at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, while I was also at Columbia for my undergraduate studies. He’s a quintessential post-9/11 Marine: A former infantryman, burly chested, covered in sleeve tattoos, he has a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat against the enemy. And now, Brennan himself has been the subject of vile harassment and threats against himself, his wife, and his young daughter. They would rather attack a combat-decorated Marine veteran than be confronted with their own behavior. Why?
This sexism, as vile as it looks in this form, is not new. The way these Marines on social media are fighting for their ability to be sexist says as much about the problem as the sexism itself. This is a deeply ingrained cultural issue that must be addressed transparently and aggressively, or it won’t change any more as a result of Brennan’s report than it did as a result of my report.