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Two Camp Pendleton Marines disciplined for online misconduct in wake of sex-shaming, cyberbullying scandal

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U.S. Marines gather for a homecoming ceremony for colleagues at Camp Pendleton in 2004.
(Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times)

Two Camp Pendleton Marines have been disciplined for posting disparaging remarks in an online forum about one of their colleagues, the first such action taken in the wake of the Defense Department’s announcement last month that it was investigating reports that hundreds of Marines had shared nude photos of female service members on a secret Facebook page.

A non-commissioned officer and a lower-ranking enlisted member of the 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment at the base pleaded guilty to non-judicial punishment, instead of going to trial in military court, for comments they made on United States Grunt Corps.

That’s an online community created after Facebook shuttered the Marines United private page following allegations that some members swapped salacious images of female service members — often without the women’s knowledge or consent — and openly derided them.

On Wednesday, Camp Pendleton officials were alerted that the two Marines had used the Grunt Corps site to make derogatory remarks against a person in their chain of command. The two Marines’ battalion commander, Lt. Col. Warren Cook, initiated an investigation and the pair admitted their guilt.

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Both Marines were demoted by one pay grade, sentenced to 45 days of restriction to their barracks and given 45 days of punitive duties concurrent to the other punishments.

No other details about the case, such as the Marines’ names and what they wrote in the online forum, were disclosed. In a statement released by the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Division to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Cook said the case proved that his unit refuses “to tolerate personal attacks on their Marines, online or elsewhere.”

“This kind of behavior flies in the face of our service’s core values and this organization refuses to condone it. Each member of this battalion is a valued part of a storied and effective combat unit, and our success is based on trust, mutual respect and teamwork,” Cook said.

The case was first reported Friday by the Washington Post.

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Since March 22, service members in Marine units worldwide have signed counseling statements — called “Page 11s” — that are then added to their permanent records indicating that they understand and will follow the Corps’ revamped guidelines on cyberbullying. Those tougher standards were created in the wake of the Marines United scandal.

At its peak in February, Marines United counted nearly 30,000 members — active-duty or reserve Marines and sailors, along with veterans who served in those military branches. Most of those members didn’t share inappropriate images or cast slurs against female service members; the ongoing criminal investigation has focused on an estimated 500 men who did.

The probe involves the Marine Corps, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and law-enforcement agencies in various states.

During a Pentagon roundtable with reporters Friday morning, Gen. Glenn Walters, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, vowed to continue going after online wrongdoing by Marines while enacting deeper reforms to root out an often toxic culture in the military that vilifies women.

“Our Marines and the American people deserve nothing less. Marines don’t fail. The vast majority of Marines live our ethos, and a part of that ethos is to correct or hold appropriately accountable those Marines who don’t,” Walters said. “Marines don’t degrade their fellow Marines. Marines don’t disrespect or discriminate based on gender, religious affiliation, sexuality or race. Semper Fidelis — always faithful — has a deep meaning that we are called to defend. The Marine Corps owns this problem and we are committed to addressing it for the long term.”

Walters pointed to NCIS innovations that have increased information sharing and streamlined reporting of incidents to track online misconduct. NCIS agents can now ship investigative material on minor offenses or non-criminal actions to a “fusion cell” within the larger task force probing the Marines United scandal.

The information is then routed to local commanders to punish the online scofflaws, such as the two Marines at Camp Pendleton.

Part of the task force, which is led by Marine Col. Cheryl Blackstone, continues to study more than 150 potential changes to the way the Corps recruits, trains and retains personnel to clean up an institution long deemed by critics to be corrosive to women.

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Blackstone has commissioned studies exploring whether to increase the number of events in which male and female Marines train together while looking at dozens of recently instituted changes to the training of Marine recruits, Walters said.

Future revamping could include a Women in the Marine Corps Advisory Council and the creation of a forum in which current and former female Marines who were victimized in their careers can share their stories without fear of retaliation or reprisal.

Since the Marines United case became public, critics of the Corps’ gender policies have expressed a range of reactions. Some have conveyed cautious optimism that top leaders of the service, including Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, appear to be taking the scandal seriously.

Others had said they can’t trust the Corps to police its own because similar incidents in the past were ignored or minimized.

Still others have supported the Corps’ current reform efforts but question whether it, NCIS and other enforcement agencies are nimble enough to pursue violators in the rapidly shifting world of online forums.

cprine@sduniontribune.com

Prine writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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