The U.S. Marine Corps is investigating a veteran's allegations that military personnel and other veterans distributed nude photos of female colleagues and other women as part of a social media network that promotes sexual violence.
Hundreds of Marines may be caught up in the scandal, the Marine Corps Times reported Sunday.
The revelation was first uncovered by a decorated combat veteran's non-profit news site and reported Saturday by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Maj. Clark Carpenter, a Marine Corps spokesman, confirmed that an investigation is underway, Marine Corps Times reported, but he said military officials were uncertain exactly how many personnel were involved.
Nude photos were allegedly shared online via a Facebook group titled Marines United, which has nearly 30,000 members, mostly active-duty U.S. Marines, Marine Corps veterans and British Royal Marines.
An online link to the the photos, as well as the names and units of the women pictured, was posted in January by a former Marine who was working for a defense contractor, The Washington Post reported Sunday. The contractor has since been relieved of his duties.
Marine Lance Cpl. Marisa Woytek told The Post that photos were taken from her Instagram account and posted to Marines United multiple times in the past six months, without her consent. “Even if I could, I’m never re-enlisting,” Woytek said. “Being sexually harassed online ruined the Marine Corps for me, and the experience.”
Woytek said she was alerted to the photos by others on social media and were shown the comments that accompanied them. She said that many of the comments included allusions to sexual assault and rape, The Post reported.
She said many female colleagues had experienced similar harassment but had been reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation from the group’s members. With the War Horse report, she said, she and others “have a voice now.”
A 10-page document outlining the allegations included an initial response to the allegations that reads, in part: "The Marine Corps is deeply concerned about allegations regarding the derogatory online comments and sharing of salacious photographs in a closed website. This behavior destroys morale, erodes trust, and degrades the individual. The Marine Corps does not condone this sort of behavior, which undermines our core values."
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he expects a full investigation by the Marine Corps.
"Degrading behavior of this kind is entirely unacceptable. They and the nation deserve better," Thornberry said.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, called for a complete investigation and for proper care of the victims, saying the alleged behavior "is degrading, dangerous, and completely unacceptable."
In a 2016 report, the U.S. military said it received about 6,000 reports of sexual assault in 2015, similar to the number in 2014, Reuters reported.
The new allegations were first reported by Thomas Brennan, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who founded The War Horse, a non-profit news site focusing on military and veterans affairs, in 2016.
After its publication, several members of the Facebook group made threats against Brennan and his family, Marine Corps Times reported. One suggested that Brennan should be waterboarded. He told the newspaper that users had placed a "bounty" on pictures of his daughter. "It has been suggested that my wife should be raped as a result of this, and people are openly suggesting I should be killed," he said.
Brennan said he published the story "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."
Marine Corps officials said victims of the alleged group should report suspected crimes to the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS).
Capt. Ryan E. Alvis, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, said the Marine Corps "is deeply concerned" about the allegations. If true, Alvis said, the allegations would violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and could result in criminal charges.
In a statement, the Marines' top general, Commandant Robert Neller, said: "The success of every Marine, every team, every unit and command throughout our Corps is based on mutual trust and respect. I expect every Marine to demonstrate the highest integrity and loyalty to fellow Marines at all times, on duty, off-duty and online."