I still remember carrying a knife into the showers with me, and being told I should never walk around the forward operating base in Iraq alone for fear of sexual assault.
I’m a former Marine — I spent five years on active duty and two more in the reserve component before departing in 2012. I love the Marine Corps. And I was enraged when I read the news that yet another secret online community had been discovered harassing military women. This one involved the sharing of photos through a closed Facebook group called Mike Uniform. The shared files, under the name “Girls of MU”—a play on both Mike Uniform and the abbreviation of Marines United—included over 3,800 photos and videos of women, including female service members, either nude or engaged in sexual acts. One woman was naked and unconscious.
Five months ago, a similar scandal erupted involving 30,000 male Marines and Marine veterans in a secret Facebook group who, among other things, shared naked and clothed images with identifying information of female Marines. Some were taken as the women were surreptitiously followed; others were shared, revenge porn style, by ex-boyfriends or ex-husbands. Some of the comments were apparently violent, sexual, and dark.
I served before the age of social media obsession. But the toxic culture this Facebook group comes out of is all too familiar to me. Technology has rendered the harassment I witnessed global, lasting, and increasingly criminal. Too many of us recognize it right away.
The week that the first nude photo scandal broke, my email and phone exploded with stories from fellow veterans and currently serving women. The common refrain was a heart-wrenching, “Me too.” So many of them feel like they can’t publicly say anything for fear of reprisal and more harassment.
Here’s the catch as I write today — while I was on active duty, I didn’t do my duty to quash behaviors like the ones we’re all reading about. And you know what? Silence is tacit approval. So label me guilty along with many of our tribe, but commit with me to changing things.
I grew up in a military household, steeped in the demanding culture of the Marine Corps
To understand my story, it’s important to understand the demanding culture of the Marine Corps as a service branch. For me, the training started at home. I grew up in a family with a military dad. Anyone on active duty will tell you that the military is more of a lifestyle than a job. Your work tends to come home with you and impact basically everything you do. It is not just what you do; it is who you are.
Military culture was part of our home life from birth. My father asked us to seek excellence at all times, even if we thought we were already there. As kids, we got assigned summer book reports that my father graded. I always earned a grade of D or F on my first try, which was hard for a bookworm like me to accept. While it felt like a big, fat blow to my academic ego, my father meant it as a learning experience. He had no problem letting us cry as we chafed at the challenge presented.
We were an organized and hard-working little tribe — or else. My siblings and I still joke about the black trash bag that came out on weekend mornings when we had failed to pick up toys. We only had to see one favorite truck or doll thrown away before we learned to keep our gear in order.
Our family might have been a little more intense than normal because my father was a career infantry officer. He was dedicated to the Marine Corps in the true-believer way a career officer must be. As a result, my decision to join the Marines myself wasn’t a tough one.
After joining the Marines in my 20s, I realized how much the culture of my household prepared me for the physical and mental hardships of officer training. Sometimes I wondered whether I could handle the physical things I would be asked to do. I doubted whether 20-mile hikes or sky-high obstacle courses were within the scope of things I could accomplish. Sometimes on my first try, they weren’t, but I trained hard and threw myself at walls until they became easy to hop. I bruised my arms learning to chicken-wing over parallel bars. I surrounded myself with people a little stronger and faster to benefit from the push they offered me. I was proud of every single bruise.
We joke in the Marine Corps about “drinking the Kool-Aid,” which simply means thoroughly embracing the culture and lifestyle. Everything is intense, and we are demanding of ourselves and one another. Especially the women, who make up about 7 percent of the group. Women go through separate training from the men, and are judged based on different performance standards. We know that eyes are always on us with the unasked question looming overhead, “Can she hack it?” One represents all, and the standards are zero-defects and brutal.
Women struggle to feel fully part of the Marines
I was in denial that sexism in the Marine Corps impacted all of us. There were hints on occasion that I wasn’t 100 percent part of this tribe I loved, but I refused to recognize them. I always felt like if I hit perfection in most things, didn’t use ramps to run the obstacle course, laughed at mildly sexist comments, or brushed off the commanding officer who liked to tell me jokes about how women can’t drive well, I’d be part of the club.
I love that club. The Marine Corps offered me education, challenge, the chance to push my limits and to lead other people. Some of my best friends to this day are Marines, men and women.
It also offered me more than a few kicks in the teeth in the form of gender bias and harassment. An incident in southern Iraq more than a decade ago still sticks out in my memory. On a trip down to al-Hillah, a small group from our unit stayed aboard a joint base with soldiers from Mongolia and Poland. As a woman in Iraq, I was stared at frequently no matter where I was, but on this joint base, it was worse — I looked like a blonde giant among the shorter Mongolian soldiers and received a lot of shocked looks and even a few requests for photos. Some of the other looks shot my way from the Polish soldiers felt less friendly, but I paid them little mind.
One night in our temporary base beat, I went to sleep holed up in a disintegrating barracks room with a plywood door. The Marines in my unit were next door, and we knew we only had a few hours to close our eyes before leaving to head back to Fallujah.
Sometime in the dark of night, I clicked awake. I felt the overwhelming need to be alert. I reached for my service weapon, which was reassuringly nearby, as always. Suddenly, the plywood door began shaking as someone started to pound on it and try to push it open.
The people outside the door were speaking a foreign language, and their words were slurred with alcohol. The rape risks facing women on overseas bases were no secret, and I knew what was happening immediately. I assumed being aggressive would lend me a better advantage than sitting quietly while they broke the crappy door down. I moved towards the door with my 9 mm handgun in hand. As I opened it, I saw two soldiers drunkenly trying to push their way in. They moved toward me, aggressive but bumbling.
At that moment, the Marines from my unit in the hut next door flooded out. I don’t even remember everything they said, but the tone was beyond clear. “What the %^*$ are you doing here?” they said.
The soldiers mumbled apologies and left hurriedly in a fit of self-preservation, disappointed and embarrassed. I had never seen drunk people move that fast.
I didn’t feel afraid, though I knew their intentions were to try to sexually assault me that night. I was more curious than scared, and I remember the sense of youthful invincibility that being armed at all times made me feel overseas. More than anything, the incident was an annoying reminder that being a woman made me “other,” that it created potential issues and garnered attention that no Marine officer wants.
I felt numb, really. I left the next day with my team and didn’t make any sort of formal report or complaint.
I was lucky that whole deployment. While I faced harassment from Marines and soldiers from other units, my unit was full of great people who had my back.
The Marines in my unit took to carrying spray paint with me aboard the forward operating base near Fallujah. Spray paint sounds like an odd thing to carry in your cargo pocket, but I needed it to cover increasingly detailed and explicit drawings of me that decorated every port-a-john on the base. We were in Iraq, but a significant number of Marines in other units had time to bring their Sharpie markers to the johns — the interior surface of all the bathrooms had graphic pictures of me in sexual positions. Written off to the side were notes about what each contributor would like to do to me. It got dark, perverse, and crazy, hence the spray paint. I laughed at the time and gave the “artists” points for creativity.
I was 25, confident, and refused to recognize the comments as harassment. It freaked me out, but I never let anyone see that. I didn’t want to be different from any other Marine officer, and I loathed anything that smacked of a victim narrative — after all, I was an Amazon.
Despite my history with sexual harassment, the Marines United news still came as a shock
Even though I had my own share of sexist experiences, hearing news that harassment of Marine women has gone high-tech with a massive nude photo scandal left me feeling nauseated. Then it left me feeling like it was time to get honest with one another. The spotlight is a painful disinfectant, but let it shine. And there is no question the Marine Corps has much to fix: It has the smallest percentage of female service members (the Army, with 14 percent, doubles the Corps’ 7 percent), but a recent Pentagon report found it had the highest rate of sexual assault reports.
As bad as this scandal is, in other words, these broader issues are not new. We as an institution can and must do better. Let’s take the words of Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to heart when he reminds us that none of this behavior makes our units more cohesive or our corps more lethal. Warriors don’t hide behind keyboards.
Organizationally, Marine Corps leadership needs to handle criminal harassment incidents publicly and firmly as the investigation reveals likely violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and federal code.
Marines also need to recognize the ways that social norms bred by different performance standards create widespread marginalization and cultural acceptance of women bashing. Separating women and men during training and making performance metrics gender-specific rather than specialty-specific creates an institutional buttress for misogynistic social norms.
I read the news this week about cyber harassment and stalking of women Marines, and I wonder how these women can be expected to deploy with a team like that. Do these male Marines violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice and dishonoring their sister warriors actually understand our code of honor, courage, and commitment?
No, they clearly don’t.
Marines at every level: Your silence is consent, just as mine was. You have position and cause to protect all of our fellow Marines and vociferously prosecute these pathetic keyboard warriors. Speak out. Shut this down. Get my back.
Be better and stronger than I was, and protect the cohesive team that’ll be needed in the next fight. I should have filed formal reports when I ran into issues instead of trying so hard to be an issue-free team player who can handle all things herself. I set up future women to have to do the same by not fighting to change the culture, no matter what it cost me.
When I left the Marine Corps, I had a hard time carving a new identity for myself. I struggled with my reentry into the civilian world. Today I am a behavioral health researcher and work to make transitions easier for veterans as they become civilians again. I know a lot more about the effects of service on our Marines as they leave active duty. It is always harder for women vets who are less likely to experience true social cohesion while serving, and are more likely to deal with harassment or assault. We owe it to our women Marines to do better as an institution, as leaders, and as people.
We owe it to women everywhere.
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is an assistant professor of public health at Charleston Southern University. A former Marine Corps officer, she serves on the board of the Service Women's Action Network. Kate is the author of Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior's Battle for Balance, and her behavioral health research focuses on military veteran reintegration. Learn more at her website. If you would like to support female Marines, she recommends donating to Female Marines United to support mental health treatment for veterans.