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

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 investi-gation,” 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.

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

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. 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.” 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 itunes picservicemen 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. 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.” 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. Lutcava-ge 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.

US MARINE CORPS ISSUES NEW SOCIAL MEDIA GUIDANCE FOLLOWING NAKED PHOTO SHARING SCANDAL

Following the revelation that hundreds of Marines were under investigation for sharing naked pictures of female service members, Marine Commandant General Robert Neller issued a new guidance for social media usage earlier this week. The All Marine (ALMAR) message went out on March 14th, and serves as a guidance for how Marines should be representing themselves when posting Marines-related content online in an unofficial capacity. The message follows a report from The Center for Investigative Reporting that revealed Marines United, a secret Facebook group used to share and solicit explicit images of service women, in some cases, identifying them by name, rank, branch and location. The investigation has since spread to other branches of the military.

The message urges Marines to think about what they are posting on social media or blogs because they represent the Marine Corps in and out of uniform, and that conduct such as what was seen in the Marines United group reflects upon the entire branch. Specifically, Neller reminded Marines to “never engage in commentary or publish content on social networking platforms or through other forms of communication that harm good order and discipline,” and defines that content and commentary as “defamatory, threatening, harassing, or which discriminates based on a persons race, color, sex, gender, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or other protected criteria.” The ALMAR also reminded Marines that they are to report any misconduct that they witness to their chain of command.

Those who violate those rules could face punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which specifically prohibits the type of conduct that was seen in Marines United. The Marine Corps has widely condemned the behavior, but the incident has unveiled a toxic culture within the branch, which has prompted some commentators to call for the resignation of General Neller. Earlier this year, female Marines were assigned infantry units for the first time, a year after former Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that combat jobs would be open across the military.

COMMENT by Nick Kordich:

Assholes exist, but shouldn’t we weed them out? You see the photos as ammunition for use in ongoing harassment; I see them as canaries in a coal mine to catch a situation before it explodes. Doesn’t it seem logical to discharge assholes who can’t keep to the simplest code of conduct of respecting their fellow marines in the barracks before you put them in a position like guarding prisoners in a war zone or drinking on shore leave in Okinawa? Marines are components in a system, like parts in an engine; assholes are components who fail to meet the specs outlined in the code of conduct. It’s better to have a defective part (asshole) fail in a training than during combat, so you can mitigate the damage and educate your people to catch the problem early. Likewise, if design or poor maintenance is puts a disproportionate amount of strain on certain parts (such as when assholes harass and assault female marines), fixing that means the whole system works better. If you work toward improving the USMC, the existence of photos to exploit isn’t ammunition for harassment, it’s rope for assholes to hang themselves. Without stumbling over them, an asshole may later provide ammunition to insurgent recruiters or anti-American politicians in the form of incidents of sexual assault on civilians or prisoners, such as soldiers’ conduct at Abu Ghraib. As a side-effect, weeding out the assholes might knock down the number of marines who are raped and sexually assaulted and result in a more cohesive fighting force where your marines can trust one another. If you let assholes thrive, you are not only marking some of your fighting force as perennial victims, you are setting an example where the assholes can flaunt the code of conduct for no other reason than bullying can masquerade as toughness. That shit is going to get you in trouble everywhere, from training to returning to civilian life. Fix that shit. It’s fundamental, it’s not too much to ask, and fixing it saves you from problems down the road.