(WASHINGTON) -- The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, answered tough questions from U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle Tuesday about the growing scandal of explicit photos being shared on the Marines United Facebook page and other websites.
Neller called the actions of Marines engaged in cyberbullying female members of the corps "truly disturbing and unacceptable."
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) is investigating the allegations and will hold any service members involved accountable.
But some senators were not satisfied with the military leadership's response.
"When you say to us 'it's got to be different' that rings hollow," Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said. "I don't know what you mean when you say that. Why does it have to be different because you all of a sudden feel that is has to be different? Who has been held accountable?"
Gillibrand pressed Gen. Neller about how commanders would be held responsible as well.
"It is a serious problem when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life to this country in the way they have with no response from leadership," Gillibrand said.
"So if you're dedicated to fixing the culture of the Marines and all the services, what do you plan to do to hold commanders responsible who fail to get this done?" she added.
Neller has acknowledged that the sharing of explicit photos online is linked to a broader cultural problem that must be addressed.
"I'm responsible," Neller responded to Gillibrand. "I'm the commandant. I own this, and we are going to have to, you know, you've heard it before, but we're going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we do, how we treat each other. That's a lame answer, but ma'am that's the best I can tell you right now. We've got to change, and that's on me."
On Friday, Neller made an impassioned request to women who may have been victims of the military's nude photo sharing scandal to step forward, so that those responsible could be held accountable. As of Friday, he said "less than 10" female victims had been identified.
On Tuesday, Neller told the committee that a "small number" of victims have come forward, but he repeated the need for others to speak out about online harassment they had received. Secretary Stackley said a tip line set up for service members to share information with leadership had received 53 calls as of Monday.
It's estimated that 30,000 people had access to the Marines United Facebook page, a private Facebook group originally established several years ago as a support network to help fellow Marine veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from combat, Neller said. A link posted on the site led to another internet storage site where some members of the group posted explicit photos of female Marines; the link and separate site have since been removed by the internet service provider, according to Neller.
Both Neller and Stackley said that about 500 Marines United members had accessed the link that contained the explicit photos. They did not have a breakdown of active duty military personnel who were involved in that site, versus veterans or civilians. Stackley said anonymity can make it difficult to identify individuals online.
The other military services are also looking into reports that photos of female service members from all of the services were posted on additional websites.
The Marine Corps has the lowest percentage of female members among the five military services, with women making up about 7 to 8 percent of all Marines, and it has focused recruiting efforts on increasing the number of women in uniform.
Neller addressed the relationship between some male and female Marines in Tuesday's hearing.
"I mean and the female Marines are a small group in our corps," he said. "And for whatever reason, there are still some number, and I don't think it's separate from the sexual assault issue, but this issue of denigration of women, objectification of women, misogyny, however you want articulate it, are just bad behavior is tied to the way that some ... male Marines look at women in the Marine Corps."
In his opening statement, he asked female Marines past and present to trust that the "problem" will be corrected.
"I know I'm asking a lot of you right now, but I ask you trust the leadership of the Marine Corps to take action and correct this problem. I ask you to trust me personally as your commandant, and when I say I'm outraged that many of you haven’t been given the same respect when you earn the title Marine," he said.
Neller listed several examples of female Marines who have been killed recently in the line of duty, asking male Marines, "How much more do the females of our corps have to do to be accepted?"
"We have to commit to get rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough," Neller added. He did say that he believes this scandal is "not indicative of the great majority of Marines."
Active-duty service members who take and share explicit photos of someone without their consent can be punished through the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) under varying articles.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., suggested active-duty Marines should be dishonorably discharged to send a "signal" to deter others from similar behavior.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., suggested that veterans convicted of these actions could lose benefits coverage.
"We need to make it a very frightening proposition for people going forward to be captured in this sort of activity," Tillis said.
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