When John Albert first joined the Marines, he didn’t imagine that within a few years he’d be going to war against the Corps.

Last September, the medically retired corporal received a notification that he’d been added to a private Facebook group dubbed “Marines United.” Albert didn’t think much of it at first: He was constantly being added to military-themed Facebook groups and pages by fellow veterans, mainly people from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines whom he’d fought alongside in Afghanistan in 2010. After chuckling at a few military memes that Marines United fed into his Facebook newsfeed, Albert decided to actually see what the group was all about.

What he found was revenge porn.

“The pictures were obviously posted without permission, and the vast majority were creepshots,” he told Task & Purpose. “There were comments about raping people and stuff. I was disgusted.”

At a certain level, there’s nothing new or surprising about men sharing graphic images or crude humor with one another. With the rise of the Internet, the practice was amplified. Anonymous forums like Reddit and 4chan are teeming with demeaning and bullying content, including nude or sexual pictures of women posted without their consent. One infamous patron of this so-called “revenge porn” was dubbed “the most hated man on the Internet” and got himself a two-year prison sentence for hacking and identity theft.

This seemed different. Unlike most trolls, these men were posting under their own names — and they were victimizing their fellow Marines. It wasn’t just a few lowlifes but guys he’d known and had served with, men who, in his view, should have known better. The Corps requires not just courage from its Marines, but honor and commitment, the faithfulness to one another and to the Corps enshrined in its motto, “Semper Fidelis” — a motto Marines United seemed to betray.

Marines make their way through Trek Nawa, Afghanistan, back to Patrol Base Poole after completing Operation Mako, Sept. 21, 2010.U.S. Marine Corps photo
Marines make their way through Trek Nawa, Afghanistan, back to Patrol Base Poole after completing Operation Mako, Sept. 21, 2010.

Infuriated, Albert considered calling out the posters in the comments, venting his outrage in the group itself. But he was reluctant. Having retired from the Corps in 2014 after he was injured during a training exercise, requiring five anchors in each of his shoulders, he relied on Facebook for keeping in touch with the veteran community. He had 40 “friends” in the group.

“I didn’t want to talk to any of them about it,” he said. “I love these guys — I went to war with them.”

Instead, Albert reported Marines United to Facebook for nudity, a violation of the social network’s community standards, and washed his hands of the incident. Within a week, Marines United disappeared.

What Albert didn’t know was that he wasn’t the only veteran trying to drag Marines United out of the darkness and into public view — and the resulting story would bring blaring cable news reports and hearings on Capitol Hill, along with a profound identity crisis not only for the Marine Corps, but for the entire U.S. armed services. Are the groups like Marines United, as some administrators and members claim, critical forum for community and emotional support at a time when those who have served in uniform are struggling with the devastating effects of 15 years of war? Or are they bastions of cruelty and abuse, where members of the military are betraying their colleagues and dishonoring themselves?

* * *

On March 4, Marine veteran and journalist Thomas Brennan revealed that the Department of Defense was investigating hundreds of Marines “who used social media to solicit and share hundreds — possibly thousands — of naked photographs of female service members and veterans.” The explosive investigation, published in collaboration with the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, presented the illicit activity of Marines United as one vivid manifestation of a subculture of sexism and harassment in the Marine Corps.

Albert’s efforts had been in vain. Shortly after Marines United was shut down, another had page sprung up. Marines United, which boasted 30,000 members, wasn’t much different than the original: Nestled between sophomoric image macros and links to news stories were, according to Brennan’s investigation, nude photographs and videos, threats of rape and other vile sexual acts, and links to Google Drive and Dropbox folders featuring troves of explicit files.

Brennan and Albert had similar backgrounds. The two men were both members of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. They met while training in Virginia at Fort Pickett in the spring of 2010 and were both deployed to Afghanistan as part of Alpha Company 1/8 that August, with Brennan a squad leader and Albert working with a company-level intelligence cell.

“Marines United is like a hydra. It doesn’t matter where people strike, they’ll pop back up. It doesn’t matter what people do to try to stop them, they’ll continue.”

“We didn’t coordinate on this at all, and I had no idea he was working on this investigation,” Albert told Task & Purpose.

Brennan’s revelation has rocked the Pentagon. In a March 10 statement, Defense Secretary James Mattis pledged that the Department of Defense would take “all appropriate action to investigate potential misconduct and to maintain good order and discipline throughout our armed forces.”

Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine commandant, pled with male Marines to do better in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I need you to ask yourselves, how much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?” Neller asked:

Was it enough when Maj. Megan McClung was killed by an IED in Ramadi? Or Capt. Jennifer Harris was killed when her helicopter was shot down while she was flying blood from Baghdad to Fallujah Surgical? Or corporals Jennifer Parcell and Hallie Ann Sharat and Ramona Valdez all killed by the hands of our enemies? What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines?

During the hearing, Neller also confirmed that about 500 Marines United members accessed a link to a shared drive containing explicit photos of servicewomen and others. But it seems that this subculture of sexual exploitation isn’t just confined to the Corps. Business Insider and BBC News both reported that several online message boards host military forums flooded with explicit photos of servicewomen from every branch. At present, the Army is investigating nude photo sharing by active-duty infantry. On March 14, Navy Times reported that the Navy is also now “knee-deep” in the scandal.

Lawmakers are furious. During the March 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tore into Neller. “Who has been held accountable?” she asked. “If we can’t crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber hacking throughout our military?”

“I don’t have a good answer for you,” Neller answered. “That’s a lame answer, but ma’am, that’s the best I can tell you right now.”

Coming up with a better answer is now among Neller’s top priorities. But stamping out what many service members, veterans, and civilians see as enclaves of unbridled cruelty like Marines United won’t be a simple matter. Marines interviewed by Task & Purpose, both veterans and active duty, paint a picture of a Corps not just overrun by sexism and misogyny, but staffed with leadership unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

* * *

Sexual assault is not a new problem within the military, but the Marine Corps has remained a fertile host for the strains of sexism and misogyny. The Marines have the smallest proportion of women in its ranks, as well as the highest rate of sexual assault compared to other branches. And the emergence of new communications technologies like Facebook have forced both military and civilian authorities to grapple with offenses like creepshotting and revenge porn, while giving perpetrators a convenient safe space to share their darkest impulses.

Some hope that the Marines United scandal will finally be the catalyst for real action on military sexual assault. In 2013, Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, sought to make changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to explicitly address problems related to the repugnant Facebook pages that preceded Marines United; in the wake of the new scandal, she has renewed her push for legislation to make sharing illicit photos without consent illegal. The fiery line of questioning that defined the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing suggests that lawmakers won’t let this scandal fade from the public’s memory anytime soon.

“I need you to ask yourselves, how much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?”

But an inside look at these digital communities reveals a culture that won’t be intimidated by threats from Washington. Marines United itself has been around longer than most people realize. While Brennan initially reported that the distribution of nude photos began “less than a month” after women were assigned to 1st Battalion in January, Winston, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who joined the Marines as an infantryman in 2006, told Task & Purpose that he had been invited to the group as early as April 2016, when it only had around 8,700 members. Winston’s real name has been changed to protect his identity. According to the Daily Beast, a Florida offshoot of Marines United hosted nude photos of female servicewomen and vets between  March and September 2016, when Albert first flagged the main group for Facebook.

It wasn’t just servicewomen featured in Marines United. Multiple sources told Task & Purpose that at least two female civilians had been recorded without their knowledge. According to one source, a member of Marines United livestreamed sexual encounters with unsuspecting civilians through Facebook Live.

Marines United isn’t the first case of its kind, either. In 2014, Task & Purpose’s Brian Adam Jones reported on a constellation of public Facebook pages such as “Just The Tip of the Spear,” also known as JTTOTS, POG Boot Fucks, and F’n Wook that were overflowing with racist and homophobic Facebook memes, threats of rape and sexual harassment against “wooks” (“wookies,” or servicewomen), and screeds against commanding officers.

The posts and comments regularly featured brash criticism of servicewomen, non-infantry troops, and political correctness. In the aftermath of his investigation, Brennan told The New York Times that these kinds of comments are indicative of “dark, dark” Marine humor. “That humor has healing property,” he said. “But this is different. It has gone too far. We are hurting other Marines.”

Screenshot from BOG Boot Fucks Redux Facebook group taken in 2014.
Screenshot from BOG Boot Fucks Redux Facebook group taken in 2014.

The Marine Corps took little action in the wake of Task & Purpose’s 2014 story, offering a single emailed response from a spokesman. In fact, it was only when Brennan’s March 10 report cited internal guidance from Marine Corps Public Affairs did we learn that 12 Marines were eventually disciplined, although the details of those actions were not included in that guidance.

JTTOTS, however, did respond to that 2014 investigation — with empty threats, derogatory photoshops and phony social media profiles of Task & Purpose’s Jones, along with a special #fuckyoubrian hashtag that trended for months. Page administrators went through Jones’ Facebook friends, targeting servicewomen and posting their photos, and posted the phone number and photos of a female Task & Purpose employee, an Army vet and a mother of two, who subsequently received calls and threatening voicemails.

Jason Lutcavage, a Marine veteran who claims to have founded JTTOTS back in 2010 as a digital support community for active duty servicemen and veterans, has publicly condemned the behavior of Marines United as antithetical to the principles of honor at the heart of his Facebook group.

“We don’t have the moral high ground, sure, but we’ve never engaged in revenge porn,” he recently told Task & Purpose. “We never made a point of violating people’s trust and confidence.”

But several weeks of messages posted in the largest iteration of the group, the 28,000-member strong JTTOTS II, belie Lutcavage’s description of JTTOTS’ mission. Scrolling back through weeks of posts reveals a community filled with military-themed videos and Facebook memes as well as the usual smattering of racism and rape jokes that defined previous versions of JTTOTS. But while some members of JTTOTS II have also spent aftermath of Brennan’s investigation expressing their disgust with the Marines United scandal, the page was littered with jokes about race and rape, and an overwhelming majority of comments raged against the women who have spoken out against Marines United:

Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.
Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.

Many comments assert that it’s female Marines “own fault” for thinking they could join the Corps in the first place; most of the replies simply demand nudes. One Facebook thread, which featured an image of an adolescent girl with a black eye, devolved into rape jokes. And on March 14, a member of JTTOTS II posted a screenshot that purported to show a military wife begging him to remove photos of her family. His reply: “If you desperately can’t handle a little drama then I suggest you getting off the Internet.”

Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.
Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.

The original Marines United claimed to operate under the same “mission” as the original JTTOTS: Just five months ago, following Albert’s attempt to shut down the original Marines United, that page administrators claimed on Reddit that whole purpose of the group was purely was “to provide assistance in times of crisis, with the chief goal of suicide prevention.” Many supporters of the group appear to claim the mantle of “broken warriors”; home from the battlefield, they frame sites like Marines United as a cathartic release.

“Since the first Marine was posted aboard a naval vessel, stories of their valor, integrity, brotherhood and hardiness have been told,” the Marines United admins  wrote on Reddit’s r/UMSC board. “Shortly thereafter stories of the bar brawls, broken homes, scorned women and drunken stupors were spun as well. As Marines, we revel in all of it, and while it may seem less than civil to the uninitiated, to us … it’s just another day in the life of a devil dog.”

The activity on Marines United, JTTOTS, and their subsequent iterations doesn’t appear “rough and tumble,” but abusive and exploitative — and it remains so even as journalists and the Pentagon investigate the groups. Since Brennan first reported on Marines United, participants have aggressively attempted to reconstitute the repositories of photos from the original group, sharing links to DropBox and Google Drive archives containing at least 6,000 explicit photos and videos, according to a source. Many appear to be spreading these media across the internet, uploading content to pornography sites like PornHub or message boards like Anon-IB.

Flagging and reporting these pages to Facebook is like a game of whack-a-mole, a challenge for both military investigators and servicemen and women attempting to get them shut down. JTTOTS II is one of dozens of iterations of the original community. And within days of Facebook’s shut down of Marines United, Marines United 2.0 and two different Marines United 3.0 groups popped up.

“This forum is open to all active and former military,”one Marine corporal wrote in Marines United 2.0, on March 9. “Just please be careful on who you approve request for [sic] because we don’t need any goddamn Blue Falcons up in this mother*****.” The corporal, a calibration technician in the Marines, is allegedly the subject of an NCIS investigation for threatening Marine veteran and journalist James LaPorta and his son after the journalist revealed the existence of the revived Facebook group to CNN, LaPorta told Task & Purpose. The corporal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Determining who exactly controls these anarchic pockets can be difficult, an issue that’s likely to complicate NCIS’s Marines United investigation. Lutcavage claims that JTTOTS II is a “rogue” group, anarchic and ungovernable like 4Chan and similar message boards, and that he lost administrative control nearly three years ago, just before Task & Purpose published its first story in 2014.

“I used to moderate this under a pseudonym, ‘Mo Delawn,’ but Facebook doesn’t let you have a fake account,” he told us of JTTOTS II. “It’s been the bane of my existence ever since.” As of March 12, Mo Delawn was still an admin on JTTOTS II; asked about the discrepancy, Lutcavage claims he doesn’t have access to the admin’s profile anymore.

Recruits wait for their next command during a final drill evaluation Sept. 21, 2016, on Parris Island, South Carolina.U.S. Marine Corps photo
Recruits wait for their next command during a final drill evaluation Sept. 21, 2016, on Parris Island, South Carolina.

Meanwhile, some detractors have taken matters into their own hands. Over the last week, Shawn Wylde — an Iraq War veteran previously convicted, imprisoned and honorably discharged for defrauding the Corps and Department of Veterans Affairs of $100,000 before founding popular clothing company American As F*ck — has used the Facebook page of his military clothing brand Silkies to leak the purported identities of the active-duty troops and veterans who run JTTOTS. Apart from Lutcavage, who is open about the extent of his involvement with Facebook’s myriad JTTOTS pages, Task & Purpose could not verify these claims.

In another case, Marine reservist and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” staffer Justine Elena started a GoFundMe campaign, Female Marines United, to raise money to support victims of sexual exploitation within the Corps. Task & Purpose also confirmed the existence of a private 132,000-strong Facebook group for servicewomen across the U.S. armed forces, in which dozens of women have come forward to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment — and their commanding officers’ hesitance to intervene.

Despite the groups’ often horrifying content, not every member of Marines United or JTTOTS bears equal responsibility. Winston, the Marines United member-turned-digital insurrectionist, emphasized to Task & Purpose that the vast majority of Marines who are members of JTTOTS or Marines United don’t actively seek out the groups; more often than not, they’re added by friends and don’t give it a second thought until explicit photos start showing up in their feeds. “You get added to a group on Facebook and then you have to remove yourself to keep horrible stuff from showing up on your phone on the bus,” he said.

Regardless of the growing backlash and the threat of charges, devoted members of Marines United remain defiant, raging against Brennan, the media, and federal and military investigators, as well as fellow Marines who might expose the group. Some members even posted their DD-214 discharge papers, a reminder that they are no longer under the military’s jurisdiction.

Screenshot published on Twitter by James LaPorta.
Screenshot published on Twitter by James LaPorta.

The die-hard Marines United devotees may appear resolute, but the DoD investigation, media attention, and counteroffensives by people like Wylde have left members of these groups in a state of panic, according to several active-duty Marines and veterans Task & Purpose spoke with.

“These guys know the axe is going to fall on them,” Winston said. “That’s why the comments are like ‘come at me, come find me.’ They’re being desperate, and they’re doubling down because they know they’re fucked.”

* * *

How hard that axe will fall is a matter of debate. As Task & Purpose previously reported, Article 120(c) of the UCMJ expressly prohibits “indecent viewing, visual recording or broadcasting … another person’s private area without the person’s consent,” a transgression punishable by punitive discharge, confinement and forfeitures that could result in the loss of veteran benefits. ”You could make the argument that even if you were given a photograph and distributed it with consent, it’s still a violation of the UCMJ,” noted Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, a national group dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the armed forces.

There’s also Article 133, “conduct unbecoming of an officer,” which could apply to Marines United members who didn’t actively engage in activity that violates 120(c). “Officers are often held to a higher standard,” Christensen said. According to Neller’s March 14 Senate testimony, NCIS has not yet determined how many officers may be members of the group.

Additionally, Article 134 prohibits “all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces, all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces, and crimes and offenses not capital” — anything that’s considered disreputable and disruptive. Often referred to as the “Devil’s Article,” 134 could apply to non-enumerated violations that arose out of Marines United, including threatening journalists like Brennan and LaPorta.

The new social media guidance published by the Marine Corps on March 14 also connected illicit internet activity with Article 92, or failure to obey a lawful general order. “Marines must never engage in commentary or publish content on social networking platforms or through other forms of communication that harm good order and discipline or that bring discredit upon themselves, their unit, or the Marine Corps,” the guidance states. “Such commentary and content includes that which is defamatory, threatening, harassing, or which discriminates based on a person’s race, color, sex, gender, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or other protected criteria.” Based on a sample of posts reviewed by Task & Purpose, this guidance appears to encompass the majority of the content posted in both Marines United and JTTOTS.

Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.
Screenshot from JTTOTS II Facebook group.

That said, “it would be virtually impossible to criminally prosecute a Marine who merely viewed those images,” Christensen explained. “You could reprimand them for their conduct, and it could be used as the basis of discharge — it’s definitely sufficient to deny reenlistment. It would be an administrative discharge that you would hope would be less than honorable.”

The law is clear, but jurisdiction isn’t. Only active service members are governed by the UCMJ. The veterans or nonmilitary members complicit in these sexist Facebook groups are only subject to civilian laws.

Some senators have called for stronger punishments for vets involved in the postings. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina suggested taking away veterans’ benefits if they were found participating in these Facebook groups. “If there’s something we can do to disallow their benefits for bad behavior after they’re discharged, those are the sorts of things we have to do,” Tillis said.

Currently, 34 states have revenge porn statutes on the books, although a federal law was kicking around Capitol Hill during the summer of 2016. According to Ann Ching, a former Army JAG officer and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it’s likely that U.S. military courts will take their cues from civilian courts.

“That humor has healing property. But this is different. It has gone too far. We are hurting other Marines.”

“If the military member is stationed in a state that has one of those crimes, they could be prosecuted under state law,” Ching said, at which point “the military would probably not prosecute but rather, based on that person’s conviction, essentially fire the person with a less-than honorable discharge.”

But according to Ching and Christensen, one of the biggest threats to the Marines United investigation is the prospect that commanding officers simply won’t pursue charges. Civilians see the military chain-of-command as inviolable, but under the principle of “unlawful command influence,” officers wearing “the mantle of command authority” are prohibited from meddling with military judicial proceedings. Mattis and Neller can decry the behavior of Marines United, but they can’t single out individuals for reprimand or court martial without risking the perception of using their authority to influence the outcome of an investigation nor trial.

“These guys know that their commanders are not going to take action against them because they’re afraid of being accused of unlawful command influence,” said Kate Germano, the former commanding officer of 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and now chief operating officer of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network. “There is no accountability.”

Germano, a retired lieutenant colonel, was fired from her job at Parris Island in June 2015 after the Corps claimed she’d created a toxic command climate, although some speculated that her views on gender integration in the Marines played a role.

Shortly after Germano arrived at Parris Island, she concluded that segregated training was designed to “keep women performing at lower standards so they wouldn’t be able to pursue combat positions,” she told Task & Purpose. She also experienced what she perceived as an ingrained level of protection for sexist and misogynistic behavior. After rising to her command at the San Diego recruiting station in 2007, Germano told male subordinates she would “cut them off at the knees” if they slept with female applicants, only to find herself reprimanded by her boss for “potentially jeopardizing judicial action” through unlawful command influence.

Then-Marine Lt. Col. Kate I. Germano, battalion commander, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, addresses the audience during the 4th Battalion relief and appointment ceremony aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 18, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps photo
Then-Marine Lt. Col. Kate I. Germano, battalion commander, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, addresses the audience during the 4th Battalion relief and appointment ceremony aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 18, 2014.

As military law experts like Christensen and Ching explain, the specter of unlawful command influence means that the responsibility for actually bringing charges falls on a suspect’s commanding officer. But there’s a strong chance that, even when presented with overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, commanders will decline to bring charges, whether due to their own cultural biases or to misplaced fealty to the men who serve under them. The Marines are “too inwardly focused,” Germano said. “We become more loyal to individuals than institutional values.”

Enlisted Marines know this. Even in her senior position, Germano was subjected to regular degradations: A commanding officer frequently discussed his “sexual tension” with her. When she was a major, a junior Marine slapped her on the butt while she was walking through San Diego. The Marine was never disciplined, even after Germano reported him.

Diana, an active-duty Marine aviator who deployed to Afghanistan during the U.S. troop drawdown in 2014, and who spoke to Task & Purpose under the condition of anonymity, said that she had known of the existence of Facebook groups like Marines United and JTTOTS for years. But she and several of her fellow servicewomen see the behavior as a cultural problem without a clear solution.

“Most of the harassment and abuse I’ve experienced comes from the top,” she said.

When she was deployed, Diana’s commanding officer would frequently try to knock her and a female roommate out of their chairs, drop sexist comments during meetings, and demean them in front of their male counterparts. Servicewomen were recorded without their knowledge, while engaged in consensual sex and while changing or showering, she said. The worst experience of blatant harassment she experienced personally was being told by an infantry officer that her reinforced cammies were a huge benefit, “because we know how much time you spend on [your knees].”

At one point, a fellow female officer realized her officemate, a master sergeant, was secretly recording her with his cellphone when she used their shared workspace to change for physical training.

“I’ve been very careful not to take nude images of myself, not even for my husband,” Diana said. “I wouldn’t say it’s rampant — it’s probably in the minority — but it’s enough of a problem that it makes a lot of females uncomfortable, and they don’t trust their leadership to do something about it.”

The mentality that female Marines are substandard service members ripe for mistreatment starts early. One former sergeant, Alexander McCoy described his experience in boot camp nearly a decade ago in the New York Times. “The message we got was clear: Female Marines are disgusting and worthless and physically unsuited for the service,” he wrote. McCoy added:

We rarely encountered the women or saw them train, and we were given the strong impression that the female recruits underwent less rigorous training than us….. Every interaction I had with female Marines in basic training, and every reference to them, seemed intended to foster contempt.

My platoon even had a “slut wall.” This drill-instructor-approved bulletin board was where recruits posted photos of girlfriends who broke up with them during training. The unspoken, but clearly understood, rule was that the raunchier these photos were, the better.

Indeed, blatant sexism by commanding officers can embolden enlisted Marines, leading to the unbridled chest-thumping that characterizes groups like JTTOTS and Marines United. “He kept testing the waters with me,” Diana said of her old commanding officer. “He used to say things like, ‘Well, you’re not as smart as the rest of us because you’re a woman and women have smaller brains.’ After he said that three times in various meetings, all the other Marines junior to him started making jokes about women having smaller brains.”

It’s not just the behavior of commanding officers that may deter servicewomen from coming forward. As Ching points out, women whose explicit photos were published without their consent could be cited for the same “conduct that discredits the Corps” under Article 134, depending on the circumstances in which the photos were taken.

“If I were some of the victims, if they posed voluntarily for photos and then had them distributed without their consent, I would recommend talking to a lawyer themselves,” Ching said. “Technically, I could see how the Marines may believe that the women in question have done something ‘prejudicial to good order and discipline’ or ‘conduct unbecoming’ if, say, they’re wearing part of the uniform while disrobed.”

After almost a decade serving her country, Diana plans on leaving the Corps soon. She believes she was derailed from a potential combat assignment because she took a stand against the blatant sexism she dealt with every day, and her commanding officers retaliated when she filed supposedly anonymous complaints with the inspector general.

The Marine Corps is the only service whose basic training, or boot camp, is still segregated by gender. U.S. Marine Corps photo
The Marine Corps is the only service whose basic training, or boot camp, is still segregated by gender.

“I always have a good excuse ready to tell other Marines when they ask why I’m getting out, but the truth is that I am tired of fighting twice as hard for half the respect,” she said. “I’m tired of dealing with the undercurrents of misogyny, I’m tired of seeing my male counterparts get awards and career progression opportunities for accomplishing less than what I have accomplished, and I’m tired of being let down by my leadership.”

Diana says she’s hopeful that the NCIS investigation into Marines United will yield substantive results, but she’s not holding her breath. “The system failed me personally,” she said, “and it’s not hard to believe it will fail again.”

* * *

On March 8, International Women’s Day, John Albert composed a lengthy Facebook post detailing his experience with Marines United, the first time he’d publicly acknowledged his role in combating the group.

Albert closed with a call to action for his fellow veterans. “It’s sad that our Marine Corps is dealing with this instead of focusing on the things that matter — honor and the protection of this country,” he wrote. “I’m being called a ‘blue falcon” and a ‘white knight’ by a bunch of people. When did being a white knight become a bad thing? When did standing up for the rights of all people, woman or man become a negative thing to be looked down upon?”

The Marines and veterans Task & Purpose spoke with for this story aren’t the only ones fighting back against the rampant misogyny and sexual harassment they claim to have observed in Marines United and similar groups. We received a number of reports of people actively working to shut down pages and collect information that might be useful to both federal investigators and journalists. But it’s an uphill battle.

“Marines United is like a hydra,” Albert said. “It doesn’t matter where people strike, they’ll pop back up. It doesn’t matter what people do to try to stop them, they’ll continue.”

But to end this cycle of sexual harassment and revenge porn, it’ll take more than just a few keyboard vigilantes; it’s up to enlisted Marines to actively take a stand when they see something detrimental to the solidarity of the Corps, even when it puts them in jeopardy.

“These guys know the axe is going to fall on them … That’s why the comments are like ‘come at me, come find me.’ They’re being desperate, and they’re doubling down because they know they’re fucked.”

“It’s like a high school football team,” Albert said of the Corps. “It’s a bunch of alpha males. You don’t want to be the one person on the football team who also does ballet. You don’t want to be the one person who has a problem with everyone else’s fun.”

“I believe the majority of Marines are good and uphold our core values,” Diana said. “I believe the portion that are behaving this way are a cancer that, left untreated by senior leadership, will erode the camaraderie and unit cohesion that we, as Marines, so dearly value. If gone unchecked, it will render units ineffective, and we will no longer be the world’s premier fighting force because we will be waging a battle internally.”

There’s a sad sense of irony that the nexus of the military’s nude photo scandal is a mere Facebook group named Marines United. In the eyes of vets and active-duty service members interviewed by Task & Purpose, the Corps has been heading for a come-to-Jesus moment for years, and depending on how Marine leadership handles the current scandal, America may just end up with Marines divided — at least for now.