The move comes as the service grapples with the fallout of a scandal first reported in March in which dozens of Marines are believed to have accessed nude photographs of female colleagues through a Facebook group called Marines United. Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, and other senior Marine officials have expressed outrage at the behavior, while at the same time facing criticism for not doing more previously to address abusive behavior.
The language in the policy change states that “processing for separation is mandatory” after a sexual harassment case is substantiated, but that does not necessarily mean that each Marine will be thrown out of the service, said Marine Capt. Ryan Alvis, a service spokesperson. Rather, it means that commanders must submit each case to the appropriate Marine officials for a review.
But the move still appears to provide new teeth to a regulation change in which the Navy and the Marine Corps last month explicitly barred the nonconsensual sharing of nude photographs. In circumstances where a Marine could be separated from the service with an other-than-honorable discharge, he or she can have a board of fellow Marines review evidence and hear from witnesses to challenge the basis for the separation, Alvis said.
The scandal erupted as the U.S. military integrates women into infantry units and other parts of the Armed Forces that once allowed only men. The Marine Corps has the smallest percentage of women, who comprise about 7 percent of a force with about 182,000 Marines on active duty.
The scandal has prompted several groups of female Marines and veterans to speak out against misogyny in the service. One, called Actionable Change, includes hundreds of women with ranks as high as colonel. Others identified as Not in My Marine Corps and the Female Marines United campaign have similar missions.
Justine Elena, the organizer of Female Marines United, said she considers the decision a “great step forward for the Marine Corps,” and hopes to see similar moves made throughout the military. The services will be scrutinized in years to come to make sure they “stay true to their word” and want to stop sexual harassment, she said.
“American citizens should be proud of their military, and the military should be an example of honor, but I don’t believe that will be the case if Marines United behavior continues,” said Elena, a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve.
The Female Marines United group has raised $23,000 to support veterans’ mental health issues since it was established in March, Elena said.
Erin Kirk-Cuomo, a veteran who founded Not in my Marine Corps, said that the new step could be a “great tool” in encouraging Marines not to harass each other, but the service still needs a culture change. Women may be allowed to join the infantry and other formerly all-male parts of the service, she said, but many are still not comfortable doing so.
“We definitely need to see them engaging in disciplinary action,” she said. “We need to really start seeing some movement here, some harsh disciplinary action come down, and a real conversation about what needs to change.”