Marine Corps and Navy intelligence trainers in Virginia demeaned and made homophobic and sexist comments about their students in a private group chat, according to an official military investigation and text messages obtained by Task & Purpose.
In October 2021, a Marine investigator looked into allegations made against instructors assigned to the Marine Detachment (MARDET) at Dam Neck, which ran the gamut from sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships with students to drinking on the job and forcing students to say phrases like “it is a great day for wieners in my mouth” and “it would be better if they were in my assmeat” during official training.
Screenshots of the group chat obtained by Task & Purpose show instructors making disparaging and inappropriate comments about students, including calling one service member “whore,” “cunt,” and “slut,” after instructors found her Tinder profile. In another instance, an instructor who escorted a student to the hospital shared a photo of the trainee passed out on a hospital bed, to which another instructor responded that he “looks like a bitch.”
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Many of the allegations regarding the language that instructors used about their students in the group chat were substantiated. The investigating officer concluded in the report that there was a “key flaw” in regards to the “professionalism and discipline” of the instructors and noted that the text messages “exposed the CI-HUMINT [counterintelligence-human intelligence] community to significant risk.” The investigator also said the subjects and witnesses of the investigation “deleted” the group chat in question when they learned of the allegations against them.
Yet no disciplinary action was recommended against any of the instructors involved.
The investigator instead proposed “remedial training” and administrative action for the instructors to “remediate their shortcomings” and “proactively ensure best practices are upheld.”
The investigator, who is an active-duty Marine officer at the same training location, appeared to describe the comments made by instructors as being mischaracterized, saying that while the investigation “revealed some unprofessional behavior,” the allegations could be described differently, though specifics were redacted from the report obtained by Task & Purpose.
The most severe punishment that appeared to be handed out was really not serious at all. Lt. Col. Ryan F. Harrington, the commander of MARDET Dam Neck, ordered a nonpunitive letter of caution, or NPLOC, to an instructor for “questionable conduct” uncovered during the investigation. A NPLOC “is not punishment,” according to the Navy, and “cannot be forwarded in the service member’s official file.”
The investigating officer’s findings and recommendations, including to not take any punitive action, were supported and approved up the chain of command, including the two-star general in charge of Marine Training Command, Maj. Gen. J.D. Alford.
“As endorsed, the findings of facts, opinions, and recommendations of the investigating officer are approved,” Alford said in a signed memo on Feb. 25.
Experts and veterans say the recent incident is just the latest example of failure for not only the military and Marine Corps specifically to take sexual harassment and sexism seriously, but to properly investigate misconduct. A Marine Corps official familiar with the investigation and who spoke on condition of anonymity said the alleged language detailed in the investigation was “offensive to me, not only as a Marine officer but as someone who tries to be a decent human being every day.”
Instructors named in this report either did not provide comment, or did not return calls from Task & Purpose. The Marine Corps also declined to comment. The Navy did not respond to a request for comment.
“There was no accountability here whatsoever,” said retired Lt. Col. Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force judge advocate and professor at Southwestern Law School. “A NPLOC is not accountability. A NPLOC is a whitewashing of everything that happened.”
‘We need to all pledge that what hits this chat stays in this chat’
The Marine Detachment (MARDET) at Dam Neck Naval Annex, Virginia, is one of several locations for the Marine Corps where students train to become “superior Marine intelligence professionals,” according to its official website. Marines, sailors, and civilians serve as staff members for roughly 1,200 Marines, sailors, and civilian students going through their courses every year.
The 15 programs taught at MARDET Dam Neck use “adult learning approaches, modern technology and innovative instructional methods” to teach “basic and advanced intelligence skill training and education.”
According to the Marine Corps’ description of the job, counterintelligence and human intelligence specialists are “amongst the most adept and resourceful professionals” in the service. To be a viable candidate, Marines have to be at least a corporal, need “good moral character,” and have to be “open to critical feedback and willing to learn.”
They are “quiet professionals” who value “responsibility, judgment, and integrity, according to a Marine recruiting video. They have to be eligible for Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance, which requires a rigorous background check and allows access to information that could “cause exceptionally grave damage to national security” if released.
A key requirement of those in the intelligence community is to be “clear and open about your own background,” one male Marine Corps veteran with a background in intelligence told Task & Purpose. It’s a critical piece of background checks to receive a clearance — ensuring that those who have one don’t have any skeletons in the closet, so to speak, that would make them susceptible to blackmail or bribery.
“One of the purposes of a security background investigation is to establish the trustworthiness of an individual — can this person be trusted with secrets?” said the veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity. That includes the basic requirement of someone being able to keep their mouth shut, but also looking at issues like debt or criminal behavior, which adversaries could hold over their heads in order to get information.
“The people you’re talking about, like human and counterintelligence, are individuals who deal specifically with that,” the veteran said. “They’re intelligence collectors, and then on the other half of it their job is to protect against foreign intelligence collectors from getting information out of America.”
Matthew Collins, a Marine Corps ground intelligence veteran, told Task & Purpose that the human intelligence community specifically is incredibly insular since it’s the smallest intelligence community within the service. It’s always been “a tribe unto itself,” Collins said, adding that these Marines often operate without much supervision given the jobs they do in the field.
“They are the operators in the intel world … because what they do often flouts the rules — you’re wearing civilian clothes, you’re going out in town, you’re drinking when you’re not supposed to be drinking. Because you’re expected to show initiative and operate without supervision, they’re given a lot of freedom,” Collins said. “They sometimes flout that. They’re not necessarily rule followers.”
Indeed, instructors at the Marine Air-Ground Task Force CI-HUMINT course at Dam Neck seemed well aware that their actions in the private group chat weren’t exactly within the rules.
“We need to all pledge that what hits this chat stays in this chat,” one instructor, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class John Krafinski, wrote in July 2020.
Over 20 people including active duty Marines and sailors were interviewed during the Marine Corps’ investigation, though their names were all redacted from the report obtained by Task & Purpose. The investigating officer reviewed the behavior of instructors in the course and in their private group chat, and spoke with instructors and former students of the course.
According to the report, several witnesses and subjects of the investigation “deleted the previous group chats” when they learned of the allegations.
It’s a clear example of obstruction of justice, military legal experts said, who added that it was baffling that the military didn’t find it necessary to take action against service members for doing so. But the military has a track record of failing to take obstruction of justice seriously, said Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and former chief prosecutor of the Air Force.
“If you know you’re under investigation and you’re destroying evidence, you’re obstructing justice. That’s just the bottom line,” he said. “So I don’t understand why you would not be taking punitive action for that.”
Screenshots obtained by Task & Purpose lend credence to many of the allegations. Among the accusations that spurred the investigation are claims that staff drank alcohol while on the job, came into work intoxicated, and in the case of one instructor, kept bourbon in the office. The investigating officer was unable to corroborate those allegations. It’s unclear what the officer concluded regarding an alleged inappropriate relationship between a student and instructor due to redactions in the report, though the officer mentions that a student “denied ever having an inappropriate or sexual relationship” with an unnamed instructor.
Most of the accusations leveled at Marine and Navy staff, however, focused on how the instructors spoke of their students both publicly and behind their backs.
Messages allegedly sent in the group chat “demonstrated ‘sexist and harassing behavior towards female and LBTQ+ military service members,’’’ one allegation in the investigation said, while two Navy instructors were accused of engaging in “sexist, demeaning, and blatantly disrespectful behavior towards superior officers, colleagues, and female students.” Another instructor was accused of “making derogatory statements against other service members due to their perceived sexual orientation and preference.”
The behavior included “referring to female students as ‘whore,’ ‘dumb broad,’ and ‘lot lizard,’” the report says, using a derogatory term for a prostitute.
“Devon is letting that lot lizard flirt her way to a passing grade,” Krafinski texted the group chat in September 2020, according to a screenshot. One witness denied in a sworn statement “that any MAGTF CI-HUMINT Instructors referred to [redacted] as ‘lot lizard,’” according to the investigation.
One instructor allegedly gave a student the nickname “snake charmer” and made “sexual innuendos related to the snake being a penis.”
“How’s the snake charmer doing in her cage?” texted one instructor, whose name was redacted from the report. When investigators asked the instructor about his comment referring to a student as a “snake charmer,” he replied “no comment,” according to the report.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Devon Herman admitted to the investigating officer that he shared a photo of a trainee’s Tinder profile in the group chat, but explained that he was verifying with the other instructors that she was an incoming student. He added that other instructors joked about him possibly having a relationship with her.
“I swiped right,” Herman texted in November 2020, before later clarifying that she was “on my team” when another instructor mentioned that she was in their new class. Other instructors in the chat urged Herman not to “fuck this whore of a student,” and told another instructor to “tell this cunt to stop trollilng for dick before she gives [us] all covid.”
“Devin [sic], no balls you won’t counsel her for this,” Krafinski wrote. “It would mind fuck this dumb broad.”
“Why would he? That [sic] slut discrimination,” replied Marine Gunnery Sgt. Shaun Bevett.
“I’d leave her on my doorstep,” Herman responded.
Instructors also made disparaging remarks speculating or joking about students being homosexual. In one instance, an instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Alex Battle, joked that a student who was hospitalized for an alcohol-related incident had tested “gay.”
“This is a cry for help,” one person, Chief Petty Officer Brandom Emmons, said, according to a screenshot of the chat. “I get this kid is a shitshow but he needs way more help than we can offer him.”
“Did his tests come back yet?” asked another member of the group, Pat Palmer-Scott.
“Yeah,” Battle responded. “turns out he’s gay.”
“Well played,” Palmer-Scott said. Minutes later, Battle texted a photo of the student passed out in a hospital bed.
“He looks like a bitch,” said another member of the group, Staff Sgt. Corey Teubert. When Battle was asked by the investigator if he sent the photo, he replied, “no comment.”
Battle, Bevett, and Palmer-Scott did not return calls from Task & Purpose. Teubert, Herman, Emmons, and Krafinski declined to comment.
There were several other instances in the report of instructors declining to comment when presented with screenshots of their texts, or declining to provide a statement on the investigation.
Instructors also claimed that senior instructors would have squashed anything too inappropriate, and defended text messages in which they disparaged subordinates. One instructor “did not deny” calling other service members “soft pussies” and “raging gay dudes,” but argued that an unnamed person was trying to “paint things in a poor light to his advantage.”
Another instructor told the investigator that “he hoped someone would understand the dynamics of instructor course teams and the expected level of privacy among instructors.”
The investigating officer confirmed in the report that multiple instructors did send the texts in question, including the photo of the student in the hospital and the other student’s Tinder profile, as well as texts referring to a female student as “snake charmer” and “lot lizard.” In the same paragraph that the officer confirmed an instructor had used those names for a woman in their class, the officer said: “It is unlikely, however, that the students were ever aware of these nicknames.”
There was no evidence, the investigator said, that instructors kept alcohol in the workplace or performed their duties while under the influence. And the investigator said there was no indication that the behavior in the group chat “translated into instructor bias,” given that all the students graduated and the instructors received “an overwhelming number of positive comments” from students in the course.
“This indicates that, despite some unprofessional comments outside the work environment, most instructors did remain effective, professional, and dedicated during interactions with their students,” the investigating officer wrote.
However, a female Marine Corps veteran with a background in signals intelligence said it was “fucking laughable” that students wouldn’t know what their instructors said about them. She also said it’s disingenuous to say that because the students passed, they didn’t experience bias. She passed her courses, she said, but “I’d made up my mind about not re-enlisting while I was still in my very first schoolhouse because of the shit that I dealt with from them.”
“Okay great, maybe I didn’t receive bias because I didn’t fail my course,” she said, “but I was absolutely treated differently just because I was a woman. That’s still bias.”
It’s not enough that the instructors simply didn’t make these comments in front of their students, VanLandingham said after viewing the investigation report. It “reinforces a culture that says treating these women and looking at these human beings this way is okay.”
She pointed specifically to the fact that Lt. Col. Ryan F. Harrington, the commander of the Marine detachment, ordered a letter of caution to an instructor’s file that is removed if they change units.
“This entire report and process works to minimize behavior, make it all go away, and say, ‘We took care of it and we did something,’” VanLandingham said. “No. What you did here was worse than doing nothing. You actually created more harm.”
And as for the idea that their conversations in private didn’t result in any in-person bias? Neither VanLandingham nor Christensen buy it.
“Using this kind of language about their students, it tells you there’s a long ways to go,” Christensen said. “And that leadership will say all of this didn’t bleed over to how they treated the students? That is naive bullshit.”
‘The Marine Corps is just as shitty as it’s always been’
The Marine Corps is no stranger to sexism or sexual harassment.
The 2017 Marines United scandal revealed that a Facebook group with up to 30,000 members, including current and former U.S. Marines and sailors, were sharing nude images of fellow service memberswithout their consent. The photos themselves were not the only thing that drew attention, as some group members commented that the women should be raped.
In response to the scandal, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis vowed to take “all appropriate action to investigate potential misconduct.” Congress held hearings, during which then-Marine commandant Gen. Robert Neller had to answer for behavior found in the service.
“We proudly advertise the transformation that occurs at recruit, training and officer candidate school … At every level of leadership, we must do a better job of sustaining this transformation and eliminating any behavior that targets any individuals less than a teammate or fellow Marine,” Neller said. “We must attack any behavior that has a corrosive effect on good order and discipline of our Corps.”
An internal Marine Corps study made public in 2019 later confirmed something even more troubling: the Marines United scandal was merely the symptom of a much deeper, systemic problem with sexism and harassment in the service. And that culture is “very much a trickle-down thing,” a first lieutenant told researchers in 2017.
The researchers also noted in the study that “many times,” leaders setting a positive environment for their Marines “seems to not be happening, or worse, leaders appear complicit in the behavior.”
The latest investigation of the intelligence schoolhouse cadre seems to support the same idea. The instructors are meant to be “holding the highest standard, and being held to the highest standard,” Christensen said. But instead, they were openly making disparaging remarks about the younger service members they were tasked with training.
The Marine veteran with a history in intelligence told Task & Purpose that it was not surprising to see the behavior swept under the rug, but called it a “huge embarrassment” for the service members involved and their command.
“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not,” the veteran said. “This sounds pretty par for the course for me, as far as behavior and consequences.”
The investigation and findings were approved and supported by the commander of Marine Corps Training Command, Maj. Gen. Alford. Alford made headlines last year after he rejected a military judge’s recommendation to hold off on discharging a female Marine needing critical mental health treatment.
Alford is “derelict in his duties,” VanLandingham said. The report “is garbage, it should have been recognized as garbage.”
Still, the investigation’s outcome is perhaps no surprise given the culture of the intelligence community and the hesitation to report wrongdoing out of fear of losing a security clearance. In one instance reported by the Daily Beast in 2018, a young Marine declined to report being sexually assaulted by her superior at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in California. The fear of losing a clearance is “super, super strong,” especially among women, the female Marine signals intelligence veteran told Task & Purpose. The lack of a clearance can mean a huge difference in salary inside and outside the military.
“I would bet you my really good money that there are tons and tons and tons of women who are harassed or assaulted or deal with bias in the workplace, from males, that don’t say anything at all, to anyone, ever,” she said. “For the simple fact that they don’t want to have to deal with their re-investigation, or having someone put a flag, or having a vindictive [noncommissioned officer].”
And when it comes to reporting wrongdoing, the “reflex is for the institution to punish the person that is bringing up the problem” rather than address the problem itself, the male Marine veteran said.
Indeed, the investigator said of the whistleblower that he “continues to maintain contacts within the intelligence community,” and that his “continued access to classified material presents significant risk to future U.S. Navy and Marine Corps intelligence operations.”
“That seems so retaliatory,” VanLandingham said, adding that much of the report appears to “just dump this back on the whistleblower.” The two-star who signed off on the report should have “recoiled” at the investigating officer’s claim, she said, and directed an outside investigation.
Overall, experts said, the incident shows how poorly the military investigates and confronts misconduct. It’s unclear what the investigating officer’s qualifications were, who is an active duty Marine Corps officer at the same location as the instructors. That alone proves how “unprofessional” these investigations are, VanLandingham said. There is an “implicit bias” in commander-directed investigations, she added. “The [investigating officer] was working here to find no misconduct.”
“I find it disturbing and problematic and indicative of a system that too often deals with serious misconduct or fails to deal with it by performative theater, that is performing these amateur-hour investigations by individuals who are not trained to be investigators, and then saying ‘Look we investigated! Nothing to see here,’” she said.
Ultimately, the female Marine veteran said the misconduct and investigation shows how the Marine Corps has failed to truly value women in its ranks. While the Army has made public strides over the last 18 months to change policies and be more inclusive to women, she said, the Marine Corps has not.
Gen. David Berger, the Marine Corps commandant, said in 2020 that the service cannot “do our mission … without the dedication of women.” But the Marine doesn’t buy it. “If he tried to do what the Army is trying to do for women, and modernize the force, there’d be a mutiny.”
“The Marine Corps is just as shitty as it’s always been,” she said, “and they’re not making any sort of effort to change.”
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