AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The leaders of the U.S. Marine Corps are still trying to cope with a widespread scandal that came to light last month. Hundreds of Marines are being investigated for sharing nude photos in a closed Facebook group, photos of women, including fellow Marines, without their consent. The Pentagon is investigating, and Congress has held hearings.
Meanwhile, women in the Marines say this is not an isolated incident, and the broader culture of the Marines is in need of change. This week, about a hundred of these Marine women signed an open letter to the service that said this.
MAJOR JANINE GARNER: (Reading) We have allowed to thrive and, in some instances, even encouraged a culture where women are devalued, demeaned and their contributions diminished. We understand why. In a culture that prizes masculinity, it is easy to mistake barbarism for strength, brutality for power, savagery for ferocity.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
That's Major Janine Garner, one of the Marines who signed the letter. She's a pilot based out of Cherry Point, N.C., and joins us now. Welcome.
SHAPIRO: Why did you decide to address this issue in such a large scale, public way?
GARNER: One of my experience in the Marine Corps, particularly given that I'm in aviation, has been one where women are frequently isolated and often wonder and think that these things that we experience happen only to us. Well, when my friends and I - my peers and I got together and we started talking - because obviously everybody was very upset with the - everything that happened with Marines United - and again, that was just the catalyst.
SHAPIRO: Marines United was the name of the photo-sharing page where all of this unfolded - yeah.
GARNER: Exactly. So it was kind of a catalyst. And as we got together and we spoke, we realized that we couldn't stay quiet anymore and that by coming together, we had a much stronger voice than just kind of individually screaming, you know, in our little stovepipes I guess, for lack of a better term, that this was not OK.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about the personal experience you had that convinced you that things needed to change?
GARNER: For me, it really came to a head back in I want to say around May of 2016 where a Facebook group similar to Marines United took a picture from my personal Instagram page that was a photo of me and seven other female marine field grade officers as we were at lunch in our uniforms and took this picture, posted it to the page.
And I watched in real time as hundreds of people commented on this photo and said things like, you know - they wanted to rape us. They immediately reduced us to our sexuality, as to whether we were doable, not doable, every amount of vitriol. We were called the worst names. And I mean these were leaders in the Marine Corps. I guess for myself, I was less upset because I've dealt with stuff like this before, but these seven other women who I highly respect and admire who have deployed multiple times, gone to combat, are Marines just like everybody else were being demeaned in this way.
And the conversation, because of the Marines United, was all about the nude photos. The dialogue kept being the nude photos, the nude photos, the nude photos. Oh, well they shouldn't have taken those pictures of themselves. The problem isn't the photos. The problem is the treatment of one Marine to another, and that is completely unacceptable and goes against our core ethos and values.
SHAPIRO: On the policy level, what do you think needs to change in the Marine Corps?
GARNER: Well, in terms of policies, the first change I'd really like to see is an increase of numbers of women in the Marine Corps. I believe we need to improve our recruitment and our retention of female Marines specifically. I'd like to see our numbers get up to at least 20 percent.
SHAPIRO: Now it's around 7 percent. Is that right?
GARNER: It's currently around 7 percent. And in aviation, we make up less than 4 percent. For example, I'm at the largest Marine Corps air base, and I am the only female pilot on this base. And that's incredibly isolating, and that means wherever I go, I'm the unicorn. I'm, oh, the female pilot, if that makes sense. So it's still an oddity. It's still commented on.
And one of the ways that this changes the culture is when female Marines become 1 in 5 of every Marine you have, at least it's no longer female Marine, male Marine. It's Marines at that point, which is how we should be looking at things anyway. But you no longer see them as the - oh, there's the token Marine for the squadron. Oh, there's the token female Marine for the section, you know? It's just Marines. It's normal. It stops being an oddity. We stop being other.
SHAPIRO: And in terms of the culture, which is much more difficult to change, what kinds of changes do you think need to be made there?
GARNER: In the past when we've had issues with, say, drinking and driving, drug use - in the '90s, a big problem was racism - the Marine Corps basically sat down and said, no, this is completely unacceptable; we're going to change the culture in this. And it took time, but the way the Marine Corps did it was through a lot of education and a lot of training. Young recruits and poolees - poolees being before they go off to recruit training when they're talking to recruiters - knew right from the get-go where the Marine Corps stood as far as drug use, as far as alcohol abuse, racism and things like that. And so coming into the Marine Corps, they knew what the stance was. And we saw over time a drastic change.
There are very, very strict career repercussions when you violate these policies, and everybody knows that. That's Marine Corps-wide. That took several years to change. But we can do the same with this subculture of sexism and misogyny in the Marine Corps. Nobody is born a misogynist. It's learned behavior, and it can be unlearned.
SHAPIRO: I know some women were afraid of speaking out, worried that there could be career repercussions. Do you think that's a justified fear? Did you have that fear yourself?
GARNER: I absolutely had that fear myself. I spent so much time, particularly my first few years in the Marine Corps, just trying to be accepted that I didn't speak up many times when I probably should have because I didn't want to call additional attention to myself. And in many ways, it was just about kind of survival, if that makes sense. And I think there's always that fear.
SHAPIRO: You're obviously extremely accomplished, have lots of options available to you. Why stay and try to fix this broken culture rather than just say, I'm not appreciated here; I'll take my talents elsewhere?
GARNER: Because the Marine Corps is amazing, and it's wonderful. And the majority of the people in the Marine Corps are people - they're the reason I joined. They're honest, good people who are committed to serving this country and defending Americans and the Constitution. There are no better people I would want to be working with and mentoring.
I don't want to leave a Marine Corps that is less than what it could be. It's an amazing institution and, in my opinion, should be setting the example for every other military service out there, for every other organization out there. And my job as a leader in the Marine Corps is to continue to make the Marine Corps better and to continue to push that. So that's why I stay. I stay for the generations behind me.
SHAPIRO: Major Janine Garner is a pilot in Cherry Point, N.C. Major Garner, thanks for speaking with us, and thank you for your service.
GARNER: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.