Ex-military reporters aim a spotlight at Facebook groups that shared nude photos of Marines without their consent
by KEVIN KNODELL
“This is a problem with our culture. I don’t have a good answer for you. I’m not going to sit here and duck around this thing,” U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said as he sat before irate senators during a March 14 hearing.
The Senate Armed Services Committee was grilling Neller about Marines United, a Facebook group that had been sharing nude photos of American service women without their consent to the group’s 30,000-strong membership.
The group largely consisted of active duty and retired U.S. and British Marines. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is exploring criminal charges.
The story first came to light as a result of an investigation by Thomas Brennan, a Marine infantry combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient turned journalist who runs the non-profit reporting outfit The War Horse in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting. The story ran at Reveal News on March 4.
Brennan is one of several post-9/11 veterans who have turned to news reporting. Many began as milbloggers during their service and some have gone on to work for major media outlets. Brennan was once a contributor to The New York Times’ highly regarded At War blog, where many veterans got their start as professional writers.
Ex-military journalists have been at the forefront of covering the Marines United story and continue to break important news. Perhaps no other recent event has better demonstrated the potency of veterans in media and the veteran social media sphere.
“I think it’s significant that members of the military have been involved in reporting on this … that’s a big part of bringing these things to light,” Business Insider reporter Paul Szoldra told War Is Boring.
Szoldra is himself a Marine and former infantryman of some renown. In addition to being a news reporter, he is the founder of the military satire website Duffel Blog. “[Ex-military reporters are] able to see Facebook groups and certainly have insights into military culture that most other reporters don’t get to see,” he explained.
He added that in some stories, the voice of an ex-military journalist can carry more credibility among service members. “There are plenty of defense reporters, great defense reporters, who are obviously credible just as us,” Szoldra said, stressing the contributions of civilian reporters, some of whom have spent considerable time with military members and risked their lives on embeds.
However, in a country where the civil-military divide has become increasingly vast, some service members view civilian reporters with wary eyes. “It’s a bit harder to be skeptical of the reporting if it’s on the Marine Corps and it comes from a Purple Heart recipient.”
Sometimes, it takes the written words of military veterans to spur serious self-reflection. Szolda pointed out that sexual harassment and assault in the military, the Marine Corps especially — and including more recent online manifestations — have been covered extensively before the Marines United revelations.
In 2013, the Marine Corps Times ran a cover story by staff reporter Hope Hodge Seck on Marine social media groups, particularly “POG Boot Fucks” and “Just the Tip, of the Spear” examining their role in the harassment of women Marines.
“Much of the humor is aggressively sexual and/or violent, and a category of pages is devoted to denigrating Marine women, often with the derogatory term ‘Wookies,’ and saying they belong in the kitchen making ‘sammiches,’ a term for sandwiches that appears constantly in sexist jokes,” Seck reported.
By the time the article ran, Facebook had shut down several of the groups based on user complaints of abuse and violations of terms of service.
However, the groups never stayed down long. A year after Seck’s article, Marine veteran and former combat correspondent Brian Jones reported a follow-up investigation for the veteran-centered website Task & Purpose resulting in a scathing 7,000-word feature story.
Unlike the Marine Corps Times, which is owned by the Gannett Company, Task & Purpose was free to quote the groups’ material uncensored, and included screen captures in their full, vulgar, nature. “One cannot be a casual fan of POG Boot Fucks, it’s shut down far too frequently. You have to hunt for the new page, stay on top of it, care about it,” Jones observed.
Several Marines who Jones interviewed explained that the groups’ content was just irreverent humor typical of infantry combat veterans. Jones, however, revealed that many of the most active members were neither infantrymen, nor had they earned their combat action badges. Some had never even deployed.
“Though there are members of the infantry, to be sure, the disgruntled young men who preach hate and discontent are largely part of the same POG boot community the pages purport to mock,” Jones wrote.
It didn’t take long before irate Marines who were fans of the groups lashed out at Jones. They accused him of betraying his fellow male Marines by outing members of the groups and exposing them to public ridicule — much in the same way they had done to their female comrades.
In their eyes, Jones was a “blue falcon” — military slang for “buddy fucker.”
Initially, Jones shrugged it off.
“First came memes and empty threats,” Jones wrote for Task & Purpose. “Administrators for these pages and their fans took photos of me from the internet. They created a hashtag, #fuckyoubrian, that they tagged in their posts. They made Facebook and Twitter profiles impersonating me. They posted comments claiming to know my address. Then it escalated.”
The page administrators scoured Jones’ Facebook friends list, zeroing in on women he knew who appeared to be Marines, and plundered their photos. That included a female co-worker — an Army veteran. “They posted her photos and her telephone number and encouraged their followers to call her,” Jones recalled. “People did indeed call her and leave vulgar and threatening voicemails.”
The official Marine Corps response to Jones’ story and its aftermath was muted. There was a cautiously worded statement and a handful of memos, but little else. “As was pretty predictable at the time, this problem metastasized,” Szoldra told War Is Boring. “It’s going to continue to get worse if leadership doesn’t take it seriously. They didn’t in 2014.”
Jones reflected that the scandal stuck with him. “Its followers really cared about it,” he noted. “They seemed to treasure their ability to target these women. That’s why they went after me. That’s why they would stick with the Facebook pages after they would be shut down over, and over, and over again.”
Thomas Brennan was aware of what happened to Jones when he decided to take on Marines United. But undeterred, Brennan dug deep into that world. As a combat veteran, he’d seen worse.
By the time he began reporting for The War Horse, the harassment had escalated. After the Marine Corps officially assigned the first women to combat units in January 2017, members of the Marines United group began sharing nude photos of female comrades.
“Dozens of now-deleted Google Drive folders linked from the Facebook page included dossiers of women containing their names, military branches, nude photographs, screenshots of their social media accounts and images of sexual acts,” Brennan reported.
“Dozens of other subfolders included unidentifiable women in various stages of undress. Many images appear to have originated from the consensual, but private, exchange of racy images, some clearly taken by the women themselves.”
The story detailed disturbing accounts of stalking — both online and in person — and intimidation by these keyboard warriors. Much like Jones, Brennan received swift and bitter retaliation. He was accused of being a Blue Falcon and of turning on his brothers. Some even said that the group, and the exchange of these photos, was to help men cope with their post-traumatic stress disorder.
Some called for Brennan to be waterboarded — others for him to be killed. It didn’t take long for threats to extend to his friends and family.
“[There’s a] bounty on pictures of my daughter,” Brennan told the Marine Corps Times. “It has been suggested that my wife should be raped as a result of this, and people are openly suggesting I should be killed … Can you imagine being one of the victims?”
He rejected the notion that he’d turned his back on his fellow Marines — the women in the pictures were in many cases fellow Marines as well.
“As a Marine veteran, I stand by the code: honor, courage and commitment,” he said. “This story was published with the intention of standing up for what is right and staying true to the leadership principle of looking out for Marines and their families.”
The story quickly spread to mainstream print and broadcast outlets.
“Even if I could, I’m never reenlisting. Being sexually harassed online ruined the Marine Corps for me, and the experience,” Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek told the Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff. Like Brennan, Gibbons-Neff is a Marine infantry veteran and an alum of the NYT’s At War blog.
Woytek credited The War Horse for finally giving her and other female Marines a voice on the issue. But the scandal was only getting worse.
Szoldra, himself covering the scandal, reported at Business Insider that the nude sharing scandal isn’t just limited to the Marine Corps. On March 9, he revealed the existence of a website called AnonIB that was trading photos between members of all military branches in large numbers.
“[The site] has a dedicated board for military personnel that features dozens of threaded conversations among men, many of whom ask for ‘wins’ — naked photographs — of specific female service members, often identifying the women by name or where they are stationed,” Szoldra reported.
AnonIB gained new popularity after users left Marines United. Szoldra documented cases of service members stationed around the world, including various local Army National Guard units, asking for “wins” of their comrades.
“Come on Marines share the wealth here before that site is nuked and all is lost,” one anonymous user at AnonIB wrote in a post two days after Brennan’s story was published. Business Insider reported that follow-up replies to the post led to a linked Dropbox folder named “Girls of MU” containing thousands of photographs.
A day later, Marine veteran-turned journalist James La Porta reported at The Daily Beast that a Marines United 2.0 group with 3,000 members had already sprang up — along with a smaller Marines United 3.0 group — and were continuing to share more nude pictures even as NCIS investigators were actively looking into members of the initial group.
“I’m only gonna say this shit once so all of you fucks pay close goddamn attention,” wrote a user of the Marines United 2.0 group who identified himself as Garret Bailey.
“If you add the fuck that snitches… I will blast you on every goddamn page from here to fucking the sandbox and back. Understand this: I will not accept a request until I can see that the person has served. If they haven’t, DON’T FUCKING ADD THEM!!! If you see someone and know they are a fucking snitch, let an admin know. This shit should have never made it to the national fucking news.”
LaPorta, having served, was easily able to view the message and many others.
During the congressional hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked about a Marine veteran — an administrator of one of the new Marines United groups mentioned in LaPorta’s reporting — who posted a photo of himself with his discharge papers boasting that the NCIS can’t touch him.
“Who is that person?” Graham asked the Marine Corps brass. “Do we know their name? Let’s make them famous right here … We will publicly let the world know who this person is.”
Screenshot that Sen. @LindseyGrahamSC wanted to make "FAMOUS" for hiding behind honorable discharge. Reported this B4 being exposed. #SASC
Before Neller’s hearing, Szoldra wrote a column in which he asserted that the Marine Corps “has no idea how to fix its nude-photo-sharing scandal,” and reflected on his own experiences.
“I can’t claim to be above the fray. As a former Marine infantryman, I am near certain that I’ve said negative things about female Marines,” he admitted. “It’s rather easy to do when you are segregated from them on base and hardly interact with any of them.”
Szoldra wrote that he hoped he would hear a solution to the problem during Neller’s testimony. But as the hearing came to a close, he tweeted his disappointment. “An hour before @USMC testimony, I wrote that it had no idea how to fix the issue. “Sadly, 3 hours later, I’m right.”
Speaking on the phone with War Is Boring after the hearing, Szoldra said that it falls to defense and military beat reporters — civilian and ex-military alike — to keep asking questions and make sure the issue doesn’t go way.
Marines United still has its defenders
LaPorta wrote a follow-up to the hearing about the legal ramifications and potential difficulty of punishing the offenders — the laws are murky and the scope of those involved is vast. “In general, offenders fall into two distinct categories, service member or veteran, and each poses different problems for potential prosecution for revenge porn,” The Daily Beast reported.
The problem might not get fixed swiftly, but this scandal won’t soon be forgotten. The popular Army centric webpage and comic Doctrine Man invoked the legacy of the Tailhook scandal — in which Navy and Marine Corps officers sexually assaulted dozens of women and seven men at a 1991 Las Vegas symposium — in a post about the investigation.
Terminal Lance, the web comic by Marine veteran Max Uriarte beloved by veterans across the services took on the scandal. “I’m not sure what’s more sad,” Uriarte wrote in an accompanying blog post. “That this even happened to begin with or that there’s actually people trying to defend it.”
“One thing that I’ve found heartening … the response in the military social media community, people are coming out, and coming out against this, which is not something we saw in 2014,” Szoldra said.
However the problem isn’t going away. Szoldra said that right now, the focus needs to be on the victims of the scandal and on how to move forward.
“I know female service members by and large don’t want to be seen as victims, female marines have done incredible things just all kinds of things for the Corps,” Szoldra said. “But it’s important for males to understand that serving the Marines as a female is not the same as serving as a male — it’s a different world for them.”
He said that women are more heavily scrutinized and often have to work harder than male comrades to be taken seriously — and have regularly had to simply shrug off sexually suggestive remarks. It’s the reality that female Marines, even those who have proven themselves in combat, still deal with.
“Women in the service don’t need protectors, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t have the numbers to demand change,” Szoldra said. “It’s on male service members and the male leadership to actually push for it and get these problems addressed.”