‘We have a long way to go’: ex-marines speak out amid sexual harassment row

Husband and wife took rare step of coming forward, calling for radical change to root out the kind of reprehensible behavior exposed over secret Facebook page

Two former Marine Corps colonels are calling for a radical change of culture to root out the kind of reprehensible sexual harassment exposed in the scandal over a secret Facebook page featuring nude pictures of female marines and violent language that has ignited a congressional showdown this week.

Cynthia and John Valentin, a South Carolina husband and wife who met as marines, said the total of almost 60 years they served were the best years of their lives but the corps has a very long way to go to stamp out discrimination at all levels.

I experienced gender bias and harassment at every single rank I held in the Marine Corps, and if I was getting that as a colonel, how are privates and lance corporals supposed to deal with it? There are issues they have got to fix, said Cynthia Valentin.

United States Marine Corps commandant Robert Neller is due to appear at an open hearing before the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday and a closed-door briefing in the House of Representatives on Thursday as the row continues to rage over what has become a federal criminal investigation and a crisis in military leadership.

Earlier this month uproar was sparked when it emerged that more than 30,000 current and former male marines had access to a secret Facebook page, Marines United, where pictures of female marines, many naked, were posted without their consent or, initially, their knowledge, often accompanied by sexually derogatory or violent comments.

This is not something you can rationalize away. I feel hideous about any person who has been violated like this, John Valentin said.

The Valentins took the rare step of coming forward as retired colonels to speak out together to the Guardian because they feel so strongly, they said. They pointed out that many military associations and wary current service members are opting to remain silent as the investigation unfolds.

The corps has evolved, but getting better is not good enough you are never going to get there unless you do something institutionally to change the culture. We have a very long way to go. We dont need another policy tool here, we have to change the mindsets, said John Valentin, 63.

Col
Col Cynthia Valentin speaks with Recruit Camacho. Photograph: Cpl Mary Alice Leone/US Marine Corps

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service is now investigating and the photographs have been taken down, according to officials. The social media accounts behind the sharing have been deleted by Facebook and Google at the Marine Corps request, the Associated Press reported. Neller called the photographs distasteful and [showing] an absence of respect last week.

John Valentin retired as a colonel in 2007 but still teaches classes to marine officers.

He believes there is too often an attitude in the corps to play down sexual assault and sexual harassment, because of a poor attitude among many in leadership towards the victim, and because officers dont want high statistics about reports of abuse in their units.

He recalled being stunned as an officer after punishing a male marine for harassing a female and when he asked her when the trouble began she wanted to know where she should start her story because it had been occurring frequently since boot camp.

Both he and Cynthia Valentin called for more women in the marine corps and welcomed the opening up of jobs equally to men and women.

Anyone who thinks its a good idea to be an old boys club or turn the clock back on the role of women in the corps, you are too dumb to be a marine, he said.

Cynthia Valentin, 61, worked variously as an intelligence expert, a military prosecutor and a battalion commander during a 26-year career, having joined up at age 28 as a former professional basketball player.

She became a star athlete, a crack shot and an ambitious officer.

John
John and Cynthia Valentin, both former colonels in the United States Marine Corps. Photograph: Courtesy of John & Cynthia Valentin

But she recalled that as a lieutenant, when she and her cohorts handed in feedback reports after a military exercise, a male lieutenant colonel folded hers into a paper plane and flew it straight at my breasts in front of about 20 others, she recalled.

Even as a colonel, there was no escape. Sitting on a selection panel with 18 others for six weeks to decide on promotions for hundreds of marines, a fellow colonel decided to begin the morning meetings by standing up and telling disgusting jokes to them all, while staring at her for her reaction. She and a more junior female were the only women on the panel. Many of the men laughed along, she said.

She complained and the colonel was admonished.

But for the remaining two weeks of the session, it was hell. None of the men would look at me, or talk to me, or go to eat with me, she said.

There is a total mindset that has to change here there are too many drill instructors who say to the men OK, you maggot, if you cannot figure out how to march Im going to send you over to 4th battalion thats the womens battalion at boot camp my heart goes out to women who have been subjected to harassment or sexual assault and end up leaving the corps because of some jerkface, she said. The corps is losing unbelievable talent.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/14/marines-sexual-harassment-congress-hearings

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