Furious over a nude-photo scandal involving male Marines who made sexually violent comments online about female Marines, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said Tuesday that he wanted to explore how to punish non-active duty and retired personnel who participated.
One idea: stripping any guilty veterans of benefits.
There should be “dire consequence for people stupid enough to do these kinds of things moving forward,” said Tillis, who sits on the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services committees.
He asked for information about how lawmakers could stop post-service benefits for veterans who had participated. “If there’s something we can do to disallow their benefits for bad behavior after they’re discharged, those are the sorts of things we have to do,” he said.
Marine Corps officials have said they will investigate and prosecute active-duty personnel involved in the scandal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice but punishment for veterans falls outside those parameters.
Later, Tillis called the photo incident a scandal and “absolute disgrace” that is not reflective of the vast majority of Marines.
The panel’s seven women were also outraged. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, an Iraq War Army veteran, saw a troubling pattern.
“This seems to be service-wide,” she said. “This is a cultural problem not just in our military but society at large. . . . Hearing that there may not be a way to hold many of the people involved in this accountable – that angers me.”
Senators were also angry at a report from Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, that a veteran who may have been involved posted his discharge papers and taunted investigators.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a retired Air Force colonel, called for an immediate disclosure of the veteran’s name.
“Who is that person? Do we know their name? Well, let’s make them famous right here. What is their name?” Graham pressed Tuesday, seemingly addressing his question to no one in particular on the witness panel.
He didn’t get an answer but the committee planned to meet afterward in a private, closed-door session.
“We’ll get it later,” Graham said. “We’ll publicly let the world know who this person is.”
[READ MORE: Top military crimes office investigates nude female Marine photos at Camp Lejeune]
A federal investigation of a photo incident by the Department of Defense and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is ongoing at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller said during Tuesday’s hearing that he would go to Camp Lejeune on Wednesday to speak with Marines about the issue. Camp Lejeune is the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast.
At least one Marine suspected of being involved at Camp Lejeune is no longer on active duty. Marine Corps officials told McClatchy he was due to be honorably discharged under normal circumstances. They didn’t give the name of the Marine but confirmed that he had begun the process of being discharged before the Facebook page was discovered.
Investigators think the page was both a platform and conduit to other websites where male Marines posted nude photos of women, including their co-workers, without permission. Some of the photos of female Marines living and working on military bases were taken without their knowledge.
Comments on the photos, written by both active-duty and retired Marines, included some that encouraged sexual assault against the women pictured, harassment of the female Marines and other denigrating activity.
The page was exposed earlier this month by Thomas Brennan, a retired and combat-injured Marine and journalist now working for the War Horse, an investigative news site focused on the U.S. military, war and veterans issues. His report on “Marines United” was published by the Center for Investigative Reporting and prompted swift responses across the military and federal government.
Neller and other high-ranking Marine Corps leaders have strongly condemned the online harassment, sexually explicit images and violent comments. Neller has promised full support for female Marines who were targeted and tough penalties for those who took photos, left comments or acted as “bystanders” and didn’t report the activity.
Neller said he thought the Marine Corps had to address the cultural issues to find a solution. He called the mocking, hazing, harassment and assault of women on display in the “Marines United” scandal one of the corps’ darker moments in history.
“I’ve heard it described as the dark humor of veterans – that’s a copout,” Neller said. He had a stern demeanor during Tuesday’s hearing and often shared the Senate panel’s visible disgust over the website.
Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley said he supported all that could be done to hold guilty veterans accountable but that the military’s authority was limited after a service member was discharged. Veterans, however, are subject to military court-martial if it’s later found they committed crimes or violated military codes while on active duty.
Stackley said the Department of Defense was reviewing similar websites used by members of other branches of the military. He liked Tillis’ idea of giving the government more authority to handle cases involving veterans.