By Sig Christenson San Antonio Express-News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The military's latest sex scandal involving a secret website called "Marines United", which posted nude photos of female Marines along with disparaging comments from its male members, brings back memories for some women veterans.
San Antonio Express-News
When Queta Rodriguez learned she was pregnant, her feelings of joy quickly were subsumed by a powerful sense of shame.
A career Marine, she considered the pregnancy a biological affirmation that she indeed was a woman in a corps so dominated by men that its female members did everything they could to be like them.
Marines' highest value was strength, and getting pregnant was undeniable proof of weakness, of being a lesser Marine, she said. Toughness and femininity didn't mix.
"I remember hating being pregnant. The most feminine thing you can be is pregnant," said Rodriguez, 46, of San Antonio. "Of course I wanted to be a mom, but I remember there was nothing that I hated more than having to wear pregnant utilities because it's so feminine."
The military's latest sex scandal involving a secret website called Marines United, which posted nude photos of female Marines along with disparaging comments from its male members, brought back memories for women veterans.
Both Rodriguez and Joy Craig, 45, of Beaufort, South Carolina, both harbor regrets for their silence at male Marines' sexist comments and jokes.
Former Lance Cpl. Stacey Thompson, 36, was outspoken and insists she doesn't regret reporting being raped, even though the attacker was allowed to leave the Marines amid an investigation and she was forced out of the corps with an other-than-honorable discharge.
She parented three children while waging a successful battle to win a general discharge under honorable conditions, which qualifies her for all veterans benefits except the Montgomery GI Bill. That fight took 15 years, she said by phone from Oceanside, California, where she now lives.
"This changed my life," Thompson said. "But if I look at it 15 years later ... and I say that I regret it, that's the idea that I should feel at fault. I don't."
After the Marines launched an investigation of Marines United and its membership of 30,000 active-duty Marines, veterans and British Royal Marines, the Pentagon created a joint military task force to handle newer probes into other, similar websites linked to current and former service members.
Summoned to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, didn't disagree with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, when she said the corps has a culture problem.
Marines United members had created online dossiers on female Marines -- and possibly others -- without their knowledge, identifying dozens by their names, ranks, social media handles and duty stations, Gillibrand said.
"We're going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we do -- how we treat each other," Neller said. "That's a lame answer, but, ma'am, that's all I -- that's the best I can tell you right now. We've got to change, and that's on me."
The Marines count just 15,096 women among 183,562 active-duty troops -- 8.2 percent, the lowest of any service branch. All of the services long have wrestled with sexual harassment and sexual assault. A new Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office survey has found 12.2 percent of women in military academies reported non-consensual sexual contact during the 2015-16 academic year.
Closer to home, an Air Force NCO at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland facing a possible 37 years and nine months in prison was given three months' confinement and another 30 days' hard labor last month for sexual assault and other crimes.
Tech. Sgt. Anthony Lizana's dishonorable discharge was mandated by Congress in the wake of an instructor misconduct scandal at Lackland and other incidents that put a national spotlight on sexual harassment and assault in the military.
Pentagon surveys have consistently shown fewer than half of sexual assault cases end in convictions -- 255 of 543 service members in 2014. Few service members ever report being harassed or assaulted.
Lizana's case might be typical -- testimony showed one young airman reported problems with him, while seven others remained silent until asked by investigators.
Remaining silent was Craig's choice.
Homeless when she joined the Marines at 18 in 1991, she willingly embraced a code that was blatantly sexist, following the unwritten rule that women be as tough as any man but play the part of a lady.
She worked to stay slim, look good in uniform and pay no attention to the crass comments that started on her first days of boot camp.
Craig said she assembled bombs and missiles to load onto aircraft, achieved the rank of chief warrant officer 2 -- and was sexually assaulted twice during a 23-year career. But she knew there was another rule: Don't expect apologies.
"We joined the Marine Corps -- it's understandably the toughest service -- so if you don't like the treatment you get, you should have joined the Air Force or the Navy or something like that," Craig said. "As a Marine, you're expected to be tough and have a thick skin and be able to hang with the boys, and if you can't handle it, then it's your problem, not theirs." Rodriguez, who joined the Marines as an enlistee but became an officer, described the same code.
"You try really hard to kind of be one of the guys so you're not seen as weaker, and you don't want to be the girl who's howling sexual harassment," she said. "Instead, you want to be that one (who says), 'I can take care of myself, I can nip it in the bud.'"
Another rule of life in the corps was that young women had no expectation of privacy, even in the most personal aspects of their lives. Craig said that even if she was in a committed relationship, other Marines called her a slut and a whore. "I was called names constantly, and only after I picked up a little rank did it stop," she said.
A 2014 Rand Corp. survey on sexual harassment and gender discrimination found the Marines led all services in seven of 15 categories ranging from repeated attempts to develop an unwelcome relationship to sexual touching.
The research firm said years of data show half of those who were sexually harassed or suffered gender discrimination reported that workplace arguments ensued and unit cohesion.
A recently released study co-authored in part by two University of Texas at San Antonio professors reached the same conclusion, finding that sexual harassment damages productivity, increases turnover and absenteeism and increases health costs.
The paper -- by Richard Harris, a professor of social work, Corey S. Sparks, a demography professor, and the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute's Daniel P. McDonald -- echoed a Rand study's conclusion that sexist behavior in military units likely fueled more severe incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
"Sexual harassment remains a persistent problem in the U.S. military despite extensive research over more than three decades and policy initiatives designed to reduce the incidence," it states.
The report divided the problem into four dimensions -- sexist behavior, crude or offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. All are things Rodriguez, Craig and Thompson say they experienced in uniform.
Thompson said she faced retaliation for reporting she was raped. That problem is so well known, Congress last year made it a crime.
"What people don't understand is that in the civilian world, when you report a crime, it's private, it's separate from your work environment. But in the Marine Corps it's incredibly different," Thompson said. "Nothing was confidential."
Craig said she was sexually assaulted as a lance corporal and, at the end of her career, gave in to a persistent Marine who wanted to have sex. She never mentioned the first incident and only reluctantly reported the second one on the eve of her retirement three years ago.