4 Years After the Marines United Scandal, What Has the Military Learned?

4 Years After the Marines United Scandal, What Has the Military Learned?
4 Years After the Marines United Scandal, What Has the Military Learned?

It took a national scandal over a Facebook group called Marines United to force a true reckoning within the Marine Corps about its cultural problems with sexual harassment and misogyny. Four years later, how has the service -- and the military at large -- come in putting an end to this toxic behavior and creating a safer and more equal place for all troops to serve? Scott Jensen, a former leader of the Marines' Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, joins Left of Boom to give the military a report card on its progress.

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Mentioned in this episode:

Marines United

Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Military

Military Social Media

Sexual Assault Prevent and Response

Me Too in the Military

Women in the Military

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Left of Boom:

Hope Hodge Seck 0:00

Welcome back to Left of Boom. I'm your host, Military.com managing editor Hope Hodge Seck. In March 2017, when I was still covering the Marine Corps full time, the community was rocked to its core by a news report from my friend Thomas Brennan for Reveal News. He reported on an unofficial Facebook group called Marines United, where sickening things were happening, including the sharing and distribution of nude images of female service members without their consent. Congress was horrified and top brass promised changes. But a lot of Marines and veterans, particularly women, said leaders were just waking up to a toxic culture that had existed with impunity for years. Today, we'll talk to Scott Jensen, a retired Marine officer who used to run the Marines' sexual assault prevention and response program, and then after retirement became a prominent advocate for cultural change in the Corps. Four years after Marines United, how far has the Marine Corps come? And how much work remains to be done?

Scott Jensen, welcome to the show.

Scott Jensen 1:06

Thanks, Hope It's great to be here with you all today.

Hope Hodge Seck 1:09

Tell me where were you when the report by Thomas Brennan was published in March 2017, revealing that this group of Marines and veterans on Facebook were, among other things, swapping nude photos of female service members without their consent. Where were you? And what was your reaction to hearing about this?

Scott Jensen 1:30

Yeah, I was I was shocked. I was about a year out of retirement at that point. So I, you know, I had been out of the Marine Corps about a year and had led, as you know, the behavioral programs for the Marine Corps where I was responsible for sexual assault prevention and response. And I heard the report in the news. And then obviously, because of the role I'd been in, had a number of people forward me the information as well. I was shocked and frankly, dismayed. On the other hand, I wasn't surprised because of indicators that we'd had, you know, for several years to including the time I was in uniform, have something like this that could occur.

Hope Hodge Seck 2:14

Can you talk more about that? What indicators were you seeing?

Scott Jensen 2:19

Well, it wasn't a surprise to any of us that there was behaviors going on, particularly online, that ran counter to what we were saying publicly and what our position was in the Marine Corps on taking care of people, protecting people, particularly women, who were being targeted by people online. The challenge, obviously, was how much of that targeting was being done by true Marines, and how much of that was being done by people who were claiming to be Marines. And then those who were retired or veterans, who, you know, you have less control over. I have one stark recollection: I was traveling across the Marine Corps, and I was in Iwakuni. And a young Marine female came up to me and said, Sir, this is what we're dealing with. And she showed me something online that had occurred, that was very negative behavior. And by the background, it was clear that it occurred while the head of the SAPR program was visiting the workspace, because of the dates on the back of the board. So you know, there were young women facing these types of challenges. And there was so little fear of doing this, that even having somebody from the headquarters of the Marine Corps, who was targeting this type of behavior, wasn't enough to prevent it from occurring while I was on site. And you know, we were getting reports of and seeing information that indicated that these type of activities are going on and we wanted to try to blunt it.

Hope Hodge Seck 3:58

Why do you think it was that the Marine Corps, at least from an outsider's perspective, seem to struggle so much with getting their arms around the online social media aspect of this larger cultural problem?

Scott Jensen 4:13

You covered it in the last part of your sentence. It was this larger cultural problem, you know, social media and our behavior, wherever we are, is an extension of what we believe, how we act, what we've been told is right and wrong. And then the actions that occurred that reinforced that action. And, you know, I think it's very indicative and was very indicative of the acceptable culture at the time, which is frankly, a culture that still exists, that's very challenging, of a lack of respect for underrepresented populations, particularly gender-based but you know, it extends to to racial and other identity issues as well, and it just flows over into social media. The issue with social media is it can move around so much. You can shut something down and it can pop right back up. The anonymity of it and the ability to say things and do things where you're not being held accountable for it exacerbates that that issue. So I think that's why it overflowed into social media.

Hope Hodge Seck 5:21

Your last tour in the Marine Corps -- so you've talked about it, you're director of sexual assault prevention and response. And that was a job you were handpicked by the Commandant of the Marine Corps to fill. So how did that come about in the in the flow of your career?

Scott Jensen 5:40

Great question. It's kind of almost the humor of the Marine Corps that a combat helicopter pilot gets plucked out of out of a role and ends up running behavioral programs and the sexual assault program for the Marine Corps. I believe it was a series of activities that began when I was an operational commander, as a colonel and my focus on the topics of you know, everything from dealing with suicide issues, and trauma issues, and the sexual assault, harassment, behavior really issues. As an operational commander, I think that got the attention of the assistant commandant and the commandant. The assistant commandant at the time had been my MEF commander. I was a colonel, so and he and I were relatively close. And I think it was probably on his recommendation, I don't know for sure, it was never explained to me. You know, I have a daughter that's in the Navy, she was going to the Naval Academy. I was particularly interested in it from that aspect as well. But it began well before my daughter joined the service. And, and so you know, I was flattered, I was also challenged. I was the wing forward commander in Afghanistan, came home, spent a couple of months at home, and then got the call that we'd like you to come up and take over this program. So it was flattering, and very challenging. You know, it's not an easy topic. If it were easy to solve, we would have solved a long time ago,

Hope Hodge Seck 7:09

The Marine Corps -- and there may, of course, be mitigating demographic factors here -- for a long time has had the most dramatic statistics in terms of sexual harassment and assault. They've been the service in which that's most prevalent. That job, did it give you any new insights into cultural dynamics of the service or the root causes that you might not previously have been aware of?

Scott Jensen 7:35

Well, to a certain degree, yes. I mean, it gave me an insight as to the complexity of the problem. It also reinforced to me that in order to work and solve these issues, is going to require, you know, breaking some China. You can't stick with the same processes and systems as they exist, without changing some pretty drastic things. Like how we hold people accountable. You know, how we reinforce behaviors, you can't just change a few sentences, send out some guidance from above, tell people it's unacceptable, and then turn around and continue to do things do business the same way. You know, that's, that's really what I became very apparent to me is it was going to require some revolutionary change, for us to really get to the heart of this in several areas.

Hope Hodge Seck 8:32

And I know that you closely tracked the fallout of Marines United and the response from leaders in a number of roles that that you held. And at this point, you're retired from the Marine Corps. Was that China, in fact, being broken? What do you see as the fundamental elements of leadership response? And was it enough? Was it right?

Scott Jensen 8:55

I think they were nibbling on the edges. And I don't think I don't think we've still broken the China. And this isn't just in the Marine Corps. This is Department of Defense-wide. I do applaud the very quick activity once Marines United popped and it was, you know, it was just so much in their face that the Marine Corps leadership really responded quickly and effectively, and, you know, put out policies and started demonstrating behavior themselves, saying. This is unacceptable. So I do applaud the effort that they took there, but had they broken China two or three years earlier, we may have prevented Marines United altogether. There were suggestions made, it would have been hard, it would have taken money, it would have taken a change in thinking but there were ways to influence that by how we track behavior online. And what we did online, and there were always reasons why we couldn't do it. We couldn't do it. We couldn't do it, which to this day I disagree with. But those were the decisions that were made. But to the broader question of breaking China, what do we do talking about, I think a better look at how we integrate women into the service, a better look at how we respect how a diverse population of service members actually contributes to the national security rather than looking at them as deterrence to contributing to readiness. You know, in some ways, some of it is finding ways to grow the population of diverse populations. If you're going to keep women down at below 10% of a population, you're always going to have an issue of looking at them in different ways. If you increase that population and have a broader and more diverse population of service members, particularly in the gender area -- but that doesn't happen unless you change policies that make things more inviting for women. If you're looking at the assault rates and harassment rates, and say, Hey, please come join us, we treat everyone the same. When you can look at the statistics, how many women are going to be raising their hand saying, Yeah, let me join, you know, I want some of that. They're making obvious decisions. So, so how we recruit, but also how we measure behavior. You know, I'm shocked that we have a system that says, okay, physical fitness, twice a year, we're going to measure you for your physical fitness. And we have certain standards, and here's the line. And if you fall below that line, you either need to fix yourself and get above the line, or we're going to ask you to leave. And we record that in personnel reports and how we measure people's performance. It's a very deliberate and detailed line. We don't do that with behaviors. We don't measure leaders and managers and people's behavior and say, Hey, here's the standard, and you either fall below or above the standard. And if you fall below the standard, you have a choice, you can stay there, and we're going to kick you out. Or you can change your behavior to a behavior of excellence, and then we'll promote you, we'll give you command will give you all the opportunities that exist. Those type of things require complete change to a report a management system, that's breaking China, that's revolutionary, that's hard. You know, those type of activities, I think, are really what it will come down to, you know, and we've tracked for years addressing the military justice system as well, and making the appropriate changes there to better support the the topic.

Hope Hodge Seck 12:24

That's a lot. And I know, there are strong defenders of the status quo in all these cases. And just to give you a chance to kind of lay out, you know, what you were seeing at the time, I'm sure there are people who would say, well, you're advocating for all these changes that should have happened before Marines United, but in some ways you were the guy in charge of this particular piece of the pie in those preceding years. Can you take me behind the scenes and what you were pushing for and how people were pushing back, just what that looked like?

Scott Jensen 12:56

Part of it, Hope, is just the bureaucracy of it. And where the offices lie that deal with sexual assault and harassment, you know, they're, they're down in the in the manpower channels, within DoD and within the services. To push ideas up requires weaving and bobbing and getting to the right locations. And you're competing against funding and readiness requirements that are buying airplanes, and, you know, equipping, buying new rifles, and you know, all those things that are competing for resources. And I think where our office locations were, and how we reported, that didn't really give us a balance of being able to compete and get those types of ideas up into the right people, competing priorities. You know, from the Marines United standpoint, there were ways to monitor online behavior that were being used across the country, by civilian law enforcement agencies and others, that were very useful in predicting where bad things might happen. And they were relatively low cost. And I was really pushing for, you know, systems like that to consider how we monitor. But the head of sexual assault doesn't have any money or any control of computer systems or the distribution of money or directing that two generals who own two different portfolios talk to each other. There were food fights that were turf wars, and it's very easy to point back and find the legal reasons to say that this won't work because it's illegal, when, in fact, probably, if it was being done elsewhere, it probably wasn't as illegal as people were suggesting. It was just a good excuse that no one could argue it. You know, that's classic DoD. It's illegal, therefore, we can't do it. And no one's there to be able to say, well, could we question whether it's illegal or not? And could we find a legal way to do something very similar to that though? To the challenges of trying to get new ideas pushed up, I think another area that that I was working on and still espouse this day is just the idea of understanding behaviors at microclimate levels. Right now DoD really only measures climate and culture at the O-5, you know, a lieutenant colonel or a Navy commander level of command and up. And that really gives subordinate leaders and managers somewhat of an out in that no one's really looking at how their culture and climate is at lower levels within a unit, and finding ways of measuring that. Again, breaking China to a certain degree, totally changing how we go about looking at climate and culture. You know, you look at the stories that we see, even today, in the last three months, the stories of, of young men and women who have been not treated well, and have been set aside or retaliated against, a lot of that behavior is happening at a very small-unit level, behind closed doors. They're not happening by commanders clear up at the lieutenant colonel and colonel level. And so how do we know when those things are happening and blunt it? If we have no way of measuring it, and then again, holding people accountable, if there are challenges there, you start holding people accountable in a very positive way, you start rewarding excellence at a much lower level. And miraculously, people start changing their behavior, you know, so those were two areas, you know, and examples of things that I was pushing for, and I still do to this day, to solve some of these problems.

Hope Hodge Seck 16:40

Is there anything that you wish you could go back and and do in that role, you know, with the benefit of hindsight? Or do you just feel like, this system was not set up to move the needle forward? And it took this crisis to get people rethinking all this?

Scott Jensen 16:57

Yeah, boy, that's a great question. You know, I, I really felt like I put my heart and soul into what I was doing. I walked away with a very clear conscience. With my time in service, I did everything that that I could, you know, I had this dual role, right, of representing the military and our policies. And, you know, you and I spoke when I was in uniform, and, was interviewed. And I was there to defend the policies that later on, I was, you know, also questioning, helping our leaders prepare for congressional testimony. I always wonder, could I have pushed harder? Should I have put more in there? You know, you do question yourself in that regard. But frankly, I, you know, I walked away with a clear conscience that I had done as best as I could. And, you know, I think a measure of that is I continued, you know, I'm, I retired in 2016. And here I sit today still advocating and, and pushing for positive reforms. And we've seen incremental reforms, you know, we have seen changes, the examples of the response to the Marine Corps with online social media activity, they responded, and that's the nice thing about the military. They've proven it over and over again, they get an order. Finally, somebody, we take the time, we emphasize to leaders, they make a decision. And then we're used to executing, you know, we follow orders. And you can see that with racial integration, you can see that with the lifting of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, you know, there was pushback, right. And then, finally, we got to a point where a decision was made. And they're able to execute very quickly and set a great example for the rest of society.

Hope Hodge Seck 18:43

So you moved to become the CEO of the organization Protect Our Defenders in October 2017. Was the move to the organization at all prompted or influenced by the Marines United fallout? And then how did that job change affect how you were engaging with the issue?

Scott Jensen 19:07

It was coincident, you know, I was I saw the opportunity at Protect our Defenders, I still serve on their board of directors. And it was the topic and my desire to stay engaged that led me to Protect our Defenders. Not any, you know, Marines United was just again an example of why I felt like I still needed to just stay engaged on the topic. I wanted to lend my credibility. I knew the topic. I had very strong views of how we could change policy, you know, write laws, to better support the men and women who serve and I saw it as a readiness and national security, imperative, as well as just a common human decency imperative, to help those those who serve So yeah, I went to Protect our Defenders so that I can continue to serve in a different way. And obviously, once you're out of uniform, you're able to speak with the media, talk with people on the Hill, in much less restricted forms, and give your opinions of things. And that comes with risk. It still does, you know, I mean, if you're advocating with strong views, you're going to irritate people, you're going to irritate a lot of people. And I'm very certain that I have irritated a lot of people. But I tell you what, throughout my time with Protect our Defenders, and in this advocacy space, I can't tell you the number of young men and women who have reached out to me and thanked me for carrying their message and representing them. And there are so few middle-aged bald white men carrying these types of messages out that it stands out. And you know, I will take the negative that has come from it for the very much heavier positive of being able to to represent people who have no voice and see the very impactful process. Hope, a small story: I sold a pickup truck a few months ago, a truck I'd had forever. On Facebook, some guy reaches out to me and says, Hey, I think I just bought your truck. And I said, Okay, so we exchanged, you know, some back and forth, kind of weird, he found me, you know, I don't know how he found me, something was left in the truck that must have had my name on it, which is scary. But this guy has a daughter who's in the Navy in the behavioral programs. And he told me that she was very excited to make the connection. He knew my name. Four years later, because his daughter had written part of her thesis on my work in the Marine Corps.

Hope Hodge Seck 21:52

That's remarkable.

Scott Jensen 21:53

You know, stories like that are very heartening to, to the work that you do. So I've been very satisfied and wrote and has been very rewarded for the work that I've done.

Hope Hodge Seck 22:03

Well, so now we're four years on from sort of the breaking of this news of Marines United, that really seemed like a turning point in awareness, if nothing else. The military, like the entire country had another reckoning later in 2017, over the "Me Too" movement, and we've had several evolutions on different fronts with different issues since then, particularly in 2020. When you look at the Marine Corps, and I suppose the military as a whole, I would love to kind of break down how things have changed, how things are improved, and maybe ask you to give a grade to certain aspects, and then kind of expand on what you're seeing, and what's better, what still needs improvement. Let's start with monitoring social media, increasing emphasis on professional behavior, and not cyberbullying, those kinds of things here in 2021. How would you grade the the Marine Corps and the military as a whole?

Scott Jensen 23:13

That's a great way of phrasing it, I think I would do probably a "B" in that regard. Some things that we didn't see five years ago that we see now, examples of the senior enlisted of the services speaking out on social media, responding when they see bad behavior. You know, that was something we were really asking for five years ago was, when we see a negative comment on a Facebook page, having some senior leaders step in and say, Hey, Marine, that's not in keeping with our standards. And I disagree with you. Those types of statements can really blunt that behavior because, you know, people respond to those, particularly the senior enlisted leaders, so I think they're progressing. In many fronts there, positively.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:00

Alright, the next issue I wanted to talk about is training and awareness, whether that's with sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender discrimination, all of those things. How are we doing now in 2021?

Scott Jensen 24:14

Oh, boy, I'm going to go C-minue. C, C-minus only because it's an average. And I think they're maintaining the average. You look at the statistics that really don't bear out that, that the training is having the impact that it should, when you look at the number of incidents and their number of records that continue, the number of cases that are being brought forward. It just doesn't seem like they're moving the needle over the last five years, really over the last 30 years. When it comes to those types of awarenesses that are changing behaviors.

Hope Hodge Seck 24:50

Same question for diversity in recruiting and retention. I do know that the Marine Corps still has the fewest number of women. I'd like to know what you think is changing what is staying the same. And again, how you'd grade the Marine Corps and the services.

Scott Jensen 25:07

You know, I'd really like to give them up in the B's, I'm going to keep it at a C right now because I want to see the progress. But there are some positive indicators. Some things like integrating the boot camp, training women on both coasts in the boot camp, particularly in the in the Marine Corps. I think DoD-wide, some of the services are demonstrating leadership in how they look at some of the racial disparity issues that they've been dealing with, as well as gender disparity issues. The Air Force is taking it on the chin in many regards. And I think they've responded very positively. Over the last couple of years, the Army's program seems to be great running and growing as well. I'm particularly intrigued by the Navy's program, how they've integrated kind of a whole-sailor mentality into this type of behavior. So, to me, I'd love to see, I think there's positive trends going on. But to me, you know, I take like the gender integration at the boot camps in the Marine Corps. It's all a matter of how it's being perceived by the boots on the ground, and how the drill instructors and the commanders and the leaders are communicating that. And if they're communicating it as forced down upon us by on high by liberal Democrats, by however it wants to be articulated, then it won't ever be successful. You know, we are taught from the very first stage that we take orders, and then we treat them as our own. And part of the problem that has been in these integration issues is we're not following that mantra. We're not internalizing it, accepting it as our own, and then moving out in that regard. That's why I say I've got to see what the trends hold. In this. I will say that I'm encouraged by [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's] very upfront directive on on taking a pause and asking for immediate feedback. And I'm impressed by those that have been appointed. In the committees and the commissions that are looking at this, there are people that I hold in high regard, and I trust to look at alternative ways of doing things. And then again, "Ok, let's look in 190 days, were they willing to break China have they started to, to move in ways that that make big changes." Then I'll be thinking more about towards the C-plus, Bs, maybe in a few months, we'll see how it goes.

Hope Hodge Seck 27:33

Final area to grade and it's something you hit on earlier in our conversation: structural issues and policies that, whether intended or not, functionally discriminate against women or other groups. This has been a big focus in 2020-2021. And I've even noted with interest, there's been a coalition of female Marine Corps officers agitating for change with things like policies that discriminate against pregnancy and things like that. So how would you grade the Marine Corps and the services in how are they addressing this issue?

Scott Jensen 28:11

Yeah, I think C, C-plus, almost my same exact thoughts as the previous grading session, the trajectories, the ideas are there. But let's see how they implement it. Because you know, whether you're talking about that and some policies, I applaud, you know, maternity, you know, helping new mothers have gap time to raise young children and other opportunities, and then the opportunity to come back in and continue in service. There are steps being taken, it needs to become holistic, and it needs to become, how's the message being received, if women are looked down upon if they take time out, to raise their children for a couple of years, and then come back in? How do they maintain their competitive nature for promotions, commands, those types of things. I do believe, again, that the commissions and committees that have been formed as a result of the presidential transition, Secretary Austin's focus and work and promises, could take us down into a whole new area. And I'd love to see that trajectory go up. And you and I talk in a year, and I give A's across the board. But I think it's a little too early to tell that we are at that point, and there are definite leading indicators from both DoD and the administration. That indicates that we are primed to make some big changes. And to break some China to do that. And then move on, make the decision break the China, our armed forces are the most resilient, responsive, capable, innovative groups in the world. You tell them, you make them do it, they'll do it. They'll do it well, and then we'll move on and we're adaptable. But you know, I go back, I was talking to a group two nights ago, reflecting on a quote from 1992, from then Secretary of the Navy Sean O'Keefe, about how we don't accept this type of behavior. It's against our views. And anyone who can't get along with that needs to get out. 30 years ago, and I think you and I could go back through the records and find senior leaders, quoting almost that same chapter and verse every two or three years up until this time. So to me, the proof is in the pudding, show me the activity, show me the changes, don't just pay lip service to it. And then I'll start increasing my grade levels.

Hope Hodge Seck 30:37

When you talk about the way forward from here, the path ahead. Do military leaders now have all the tools that they need, as long as they have the will to break China as you said? Or are there any places that you think Congress needs to put in place a mandate and give that extra kind of force of law?

Scott Jensen 30:59

Well, I think they do have the tools they need if they want to choose that. But I also think that there are going to be some need to be some legislative changes that demand the carrot and the stick. I firmly believe that if our military leaders wanted to do this, these things, they don't need legislative mandates to do it. But history has proven that oftentimes legislative mandates or some type of research restrictions until things get done by holding back money is a forcing function. We still have room to grow in the military justice reform areas. I believe that we have a bigger chance this year now with the legislature and who's in the leadership and what we're hearing from both sides of the aisle. And you know, we've given it enough time, it's time for a legislative mandate on military justice improvement. That's an area I do believe will require legal reform to really make the change that's necessary. I do believe there also need to be legislative mandates that ask at least for follow up and reforms and call people for hearings to to report on how they're doing if not being very specific, indirect legislative language that directs a different way of monitoring culture and climate change within units and organizations.

Hope Hodge Seck 32:20

Scott Jensen, thank you for your time today. It's been a great conversation. Really appreciate your insights and your honest reflection on this pivotal period in military history.

Scott Jensen 32:35

Well, thank you so much.

Hope Hodge Seck 32:41

Thanks, once again for joining us here at Left of Boom. I'm so grateful for your support and the thousands of downloads this show has gotten in just one year. If you've got ideas for other themes to tackle, send them my way at podcast@military.com. I'll give you a shout-out on a future episode if you do. And in the meantime, remember you can find all the news and information you need about your military community every day at Military.com.

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