“I don’t know if you can tell but I’m nervous,” a Marine sergeant named Dalina told her followers in a video posted to TikTok in December.
“I’ll raise my right hand and swear to tell the truth,” she said in advance of a disciplinary proceeding for a fellow Marine she hadn’t seen in more than a year. “I promised myself I’d show up and tell my story. For so long I looked for reasons why I deserved this. How could I let this happen to me?”
Dalina was hopeful she’d be heard that chilly Wednesday morning at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where she would tell superiors about the “perpetrator” she had left unnamed in the video. The man had “wrongly appropriated” and distributed nude images without her consent, a Marine official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case.
“Today I’m going to tell the story of how he took me from me. Here’s to the first step of getting my life back,” she said. Yet the hearing was “brutal,” Dalina said days later, revealing that her superiors had said she had been a “temptation” for the fellow Marine, though they ultimately admitted he had committed wrongdoing. The non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit images or video, called ‘revenge porn,’ was criminalized in the military in 2018.
Still, Dalina figured that ultimately he’d be kicked out of the Marine Corps. And there was reason to be hopeful: The man had broken a sacred trust with a fellow Marine, a teammate, just like the hundreds of Marines discharged amid the 2017 ‘Marines United’ nude photo-sharing scandal in which some 30,000 active-duty Marines and veterans were harassing and cyberstalking female colleagues.
The Marine commandant at the time even publicly questioned the commitment to the Corps of those denigrating their “brothers and sisters,” and the scandal forced an institutional reckoning of sorts, though women in the Marine Corps say sexism in the service remains a problem, as Dalina’s experience indicates.
She recalled her superiors characterizing the trauma of what researchers call ‘image-based abuse’ that can result in depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a potentially “character-building” lesson for the harasser; that he could take this “one small incident … and it will make him a better leader,” she said.
Despite apparent assurances the man would be discharged, the Marine Corps instead decided to keep him in the ranks, Dalina said in an emotional video posted to TikTok on Thursday. Clearly distraught, the Marine said that despite an admission of guilt and that her entire chain of command recommended against retention, the commanding general had decided otherwise.
“This is exactly why fucking females in the military fucking kill themselves,” Dalina said in the video as tears streamed down her face.
Marine officials were initially caught off guard when asked for comment by Task & Purpose but later said they were “aware” of the video and were working to ensure Dalina’s safety. The service released a statement roughly 24 hours later saying she had been given an opportunity to speak with senior representatives in her command, a right afforded to every Marine through a procedure known as request mast.
“I came forward because I had proof,” said Dalina, who announced in November she planned to leave the Corps after eight years of service. “My career is gone. My will to keep going is gone. Tomorrow I will request mast but today I am defeated.”
“I’m not okay and I won’t be for a very long time,” Dalina wrote on Instagram the day after her TikTok video went viral inside and outside the military. By then, the video had spread so rapidly that it had garnered the attention of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who called it “deeply disturbing” at a Pentagon news conference. Yet whatever happens in response, the Marine Corps is now in the position of explaining why an admitted sexual harasser deserves to stay in as his victim leaves the service behind after eight years, feeling broken and betrayed.
“If I get retaliated on, one, somebody is going to have to admit or prove to me that I’m lying,” Dalina said in December. “Two, they would have to deny public records, and three, what are they gonna do, retraumatize me? Too fucking late.”
Marine officials could not immediately offer specifics of Dalina’s case, including questions of whether the Corps would reverse the decision or punish the general, whom the Corps has so far refused to identify. But officials claim the proceeding, known as nonjudicial punishment (NJP), has not yet been settled.
“The video specifically refers to an allegation of misconduct regarding the wrongful appropriation and distribution of personal information,” said Capt. Angelica Sposato, a Marine spokeswoman. “The current administrative process for the accused perpetrator mentioned in the video is ongoing.”
Even so, the choice to send the perpetrator to nonjudicial punishment, which is different from court-martial and is typically used for ‘minor’ offenses according to a 2015 commander’s legal handbook, may have broader implications. Top military leaders have argued for years that commanders should continue to have the final say over what punishments are administered to subordinates accused of sex crimes. But lawmakers, frustrated by Pentagon statistics that continue to show a disturbing rise in sex-related offenses, appear to be organizing legislation that could change that.
“I don’t know why you need to retain someone violating the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] in this manner,” said Don Christenson, a retired Air Force judge and the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual trauma survivors. “Get rid of him,” he said, alluding to a severe, largely ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward drug use in the military. “If he had smoked a joint, he’d be gone.”
“They’re just clearly showing again that they can’t handle this, the commands can’t handle this,” said Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a former Marine sergeant and founder of Not In My Marine Corps. “Why is the case ongoing if you informed the victim that the perpetrator was recommended for retention? Why did they tell her that on Thursday?”
The Marine Corps’ institutional problem with women, which comprise a small fraction of the Corps, has been frequently documented in surveys, books, and a number of research studies, including one conducted by the Marine Corps itself after the 2017 scandal.
Yet despite their small numbers, many female Marines have been able to excel in an environment that a 2018 Pentagon study rated as having “significantly higher” levels of hostility toward women. Between 2009 and 2012, for example, small groups of “female engagement teams” worked alongside Marine infantrymen in Afghanistan and were widely praised for their ability to collect intelligence and speak directly with women, which their male colleagues were barred from doing due to Afghan cultural sensitivities.
“We can actually not do our mission in the Department of Defense in the Marine Corps, without the dedication of women,” Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger said in September.
In social media posts, Dalina has been vocal about her experiences in the Marine Corps, recalling in a TikTok video the rape of a fellow Marine lance corporal whose attacker escaped punishment and, in another, spoke of sexual violence being the reality for so many others. Indeed, the Pentagon said there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims in 2019, a 3% increase from 2018, while confidential, or ‘restricted reports’, increased by 17%.
In 2016, Dalina’s name was among them. That year, she said she had let a fellow Marine stay the night so that he wouldn’t drink and drive. The man later climbed into her bed while she slept and assaulted her.
“I woke up with him inside of me,” Dalina, then 21, recalled on a website she founded after the attack, which said the rape happened as her infant son slept in a crib mere feet away. She filed a confidential report of the incident with the military but said it was mishandled and thus became ‘unrestricted,’ which led to an investigation and chastisement from colleagues.
Her story illustrates the calculus that Marine women must think about before they speak up, fearing they’ll be ostracized by what Kirk-Cuomo, the founder of Not In My Marine Corps, coined a “good old boys club.” And with women making up only about 16,000 of a 180,000-strong Marine Corps, it can certainly feel that way.
“They straight up don’t have the numbers to defend against a culture of misogyny,” said Maximilian Uriarte, the former Marine behind the influential Terminal Lance web comic. “It is entirely on men to be better.”
According to a 2015 Rand Corporation study, “groups more hostile to women experience lower cohesion after gender integration than do groups less hostile toward women.” And while resentment toward women is seen in every service branch, the Marine Corps stands out: When the Pentagon asked women about their unit’s overall climate and hostility in the workplace, a 2018 report from the Office of People Analytics said “Marine Corps women rated every aspect of the unit climate as significantly lower, and the level of hostility as significantly higher,” than men.
“I was told ‘What did you expect? Perception is reality,’” Dalina wrote on the website she coined Not My Reality. “My story is the story of hundreds and I think it’s time we talk about it.”