Col. Scott Jensen was hopeful. After months of research, he and his team at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., had compiled a briefing for general officers that suggested new ways to tackle an online culture of misogyny, harassment and retaliation among Marines, and they had the support of Jensen’s boss.
The December 2014 plan was forwarded to Marine Corps headquarters, Jensen said. A copy provided to The Washington Post shows that it proposed automated monitoring of problematic sites, and warned that there was a perception among rank-and-file Marines that despite congressional and media scrutiny, the service wasn’t doing enough to stop the problem.
The effort fizzled amid questions about who should be in charge before it was briefed to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then the service’s top officer, Jensen said. Twenty-seven months later, a scandal erupted when the veteran-run website The Warhorse reported that a private Facebook group of 30,000 people was sharing images of nude female service members without their consent.
On Tuesday, Jensen will be announced as the new chief executive officer of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit organization devoted to stopping sexual assault in the military. Founded in 2011, it focuses on drawing attention to weaknesses in enforcement efforts, assisting victims and calling for policy change. The move effectively puts Jensen in a position in which he will be speaking out against some of his old bosses.
Jensen acknowledged that some in the military may see that as a betrayal, and said he took the job in part because of his own disappointment with how the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military officials have handled misogyny in the ranks. Changing bad online behavior and the culture behind it is a “wicked problem,” but with the right steps, the Marines United fiasco could have been prevented, he said.
“Quite frankly, it was exactly the ‘this is too hard of a challenge to solve’ that I think stalled it,” Jensen said. “I do not believe that it was too hard to solve, but I do believe that it would have taken a lot more aggressive activity from a collaborative group of leaders and bureaucratic sections to come together looking for new solutions — and that’s what failed in the Marines United campaign.”
Jensen will become a new advocate for victims as the #MeToo movement that has exposed misogynistic behavior continues and asks men to get involved. Critics say misogyny remains prevalent across the military, but perhaps more so in the Marine Corps, which is less than 8 percent female and was the most resistant to a 2015 directive by President Barack Obama’s administration to integrate women in all jobs in which they meet established standards.
Jensen, who has a daughter who is a Navy pilot, said he regrets not being able to do more before retiring from the military in 2016. A helicopter pilot, he deployed to Somalia in the 1990s and four times to Iraq during the war there. He led Marine Corps aviation in Afghanistan for nearly a year beginning in December 2013. It was during that deployment that Gen. James F. Amos, then the commandant of the Marine Corps, selected Jensen to lead sexual assault prevention and response.
Progress will not be easy. Even when Marine officials have successfully had accounts shut down on Instagram and other networks, spin offs have appeared online shortly afterward. The sites often laud military life, but also pass on jokes about rape, derogatory messages about female service members and photographs of women that have been reposted from their social media accounts, often without their consent.
A Marine Corps spokesman, Maj. Brian Block, said that the service has actively addressed sexual assault in the force for years and considers misogyny and harassment contradictory to its values.
“We understand that this is not a social media issue alone, but a matter of culture and attitude,” Block said. “We are committed not only to addressing the behaviors, but also to eliminating these attitudes from our Corps.”
Block cited the 2012 creation of a sexual assault prevention campaign plan by Amos, then the service’s top officer, as well as more recent efforts since the Marines United fallout. In one example, the service launched a task force last year led by the service’s No. 2 officer, Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters, to tackle misogyny and other cultural issues.
The service also set up a new Personnel Studies and Oversight Office at Quantico, effectively created to be a conscience for the Marine Corps. It is not immediately clear what effect it will have, but it reports directly to Walters, potentially giving it some clout.
Jensen praised the current commandant, Gen. Robert B. Neller, for coming out forcefully against online harassment and misogyny after the Marines United scandal. Neller has called on all Marines to report what they see, saying there should be no silent witnesses to bad behavior.
Jensen said that the Corps’ new efforts “look good on paper” but that Marine leaders need to set a clear timeline for what they will change and how. He also noted that just a handful of cases related to Marines United have been handled at court-martial so far. As of October, the service had prosecuted six people and taken some form of administrative discipline against 26 others, according to Marine officials. The results, he said, are “less than satisfying.”
But Jensen doesn’t want to be seen as hostile — just concerned.
“I don’t want this to be seen as potshots,” he said. “I didn’t fulfill my goals when I was in uniform, and I have this opportunity on the outside to shine a light on a problem that is going to be sustained unless more action is taken. I’m not intending this to attack for the sole purpose of attack. It’s not personal to me. It’s a desire to shine a light and be seen as someone who is trying to solve a problem that still exists in our forces.”