WASHINGTON: The ‘ top officer Friday urged female Marines whose intimate photos were secretly shared by a members-only Facebook group of active-duty and retired Marines to come forward and cooperate with military investigators.
“I understand why that might be a bit of a reach for them right now,” said Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant, during a Pentagon news conference. “The only way that there’s going to be accountability in this is if somebody comes forward and tells us what happened to them.”
The has been rocked by disclosures that an all-male, invitation-only group called Marines United shared thousands of nude and other private photos of women.
As reports spread that illicit images may have also been shared on other social media sites, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis harshly criticised such violations of privacy and betrayals of trust and signalled that he would hold military and civilian officials accountable for cracking down on the abuses.
“The purported actions of civilian and military personnel on social media websites, including some associated with the Marines United group and possibly others, represent egregious violations of the fundamental values we uphold at the Department of Defense,” Mattis said in a statement.
“The chain of command is taking all appropriate action to investigate potential misconduct and to maintain good order and discipline throughout our armed forces,” he added. “Lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of fellow members of the Department of Defence is unacceptable and counter to unit cohesion. We will not excuse or tolerate such behaviour if we are to uphold our values and maintain our ability to defeat the enemy on the battlefield.”
Most of the focus has fallen on the — not only because of the Facebook group but also because of its warrior culture and the fact that it has the smallest percentage of women among the services.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has begun an investigation into the site.
Investigating the abuse, however, will require the Marines to win the trust of women whose photos and personal details were posted in the group. So far, fewer than 10 women have taken their complaints to the Marines, Neller said.
And despite Neller’s call for cooperation from the victims, it remained unclear how many women were even aware their photos had been posted, since the site was members-only and now has been taken down.
Neller said he was establishing a task force to examine what changes need to be made to training and policy to combat the “subculture that may have given rise to this.” Neller said the task force would include female Marines.
“I’m not going to lay this off on anybody else, on the society or anybody else,” he said. “This is our problem and I own it. We own it.”
He also pledged to any women who lodged complaints that “the chain of command is obligated and required by order, rule and regulation and by my direct directions to make sure that they’re protected.”
Neller has a long military record, including service in the invasion of Panama, operations in Haiti and the war in Iraq. But he has little familiarity with social media — which he acknowledged might have made him slow to respond to the problem of misogynist websites.
“I don’t have a Facebook page; I don’t do social media,” he said. “I’m generationally challenged here, all right.”
The Marines also took action on another front: allegations of physical abuse by drill instructors at Parris Island, the training centre in South Carolina.
On Friday, the service announced that it would hold a preliminary hearing Thursday to determine whether charges should proceed against a gunnery sergeant in relation to the death of a Muslim recruit.
Raheel Siddiqui, 20, died last March after falling three stories from a stairwell at the training depot at Parris Island.
An earlier investigation into the case found that on March 18, Siddiqui gave a note to an instructor before breakfast, asking to go to sick call because he “coughed blood a few times last night” and “completely lost his voice and can barely whisper.”
The instructor yelled at Siddiqui and made him do sprints the length of the barracks, which are known in the as squad bays.
Siddiqui, crying, collapsed, holding his throat, at which point the instructor slapped him in the face loud enough that it could be heard throughout the squad bay, according to the report. After being hit, Siddiqui got up, ran out of the barracks and jumped into a stairwell, falling 38 feet. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.
While investigators ruled his death a suicide, they noted a pattern of abuse and hazing in training.
The sergeant’s name has not been released.