Marine Corps Finds it Tough to Shut Down Sexism Facebook Groups
For veterans like Katherine Keleher, Facebook can be a nightmare.
When a photo of the 25-year-old former Marine was posted to "Just the Tip, of the Spear" last fall, she was so nervous she couldn't bear to look and asked a friend to check the page for her. The group's name, abbreviated JTTOTS, plays off of innuendo and the Marine Corps moniker as the Tip of the Spear.
"I freaked out; I wouldn't even look at first," Keleher said. "I have all of my social media set up so that it's private, and so I was really confused how in the world they got a photo of me. I was terrified of the comments I was going to be receiving."
A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Keleher soon became intimately familiar with unofficial Marine Facebook pages like JTTOTS, which are forums for crude humor that often targets women. Female Marines are being openly harassed and denigrated on Facebook, in some cases by other active-duty Marines.
Photos of Keleher have been published to the JTTOTS page three times. The ensuing comments were overtly sexual and some threatened sexual violence, Keleher said.
"They posted pictures of me and they were commenting about wanting to rape me, or saying I looked like a man, or things of that nature," said Keleher, who served as a combat correspondent during her five years in the Marines.
The Marine Corps knows this is happening, and can do little to stop it. Military officials say they can't always identify those who post to the pages, and are at a loss when it comes to veterans and civilians harassing active-duty men and women in the armed forces.
Counting the Close Calls
MARJAH, Afghanistan - I’m not an infantryman, far from it. I’m as much of a POG (pronounced pogue and meaning person other than grunt) as one can be, but with the Marine Corps being what it is, even POGs are afforded the opportunity to see combat. While deployed to Marjah, Helmand province, Afghanistan with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, as a combat correspondent tasked with capturing images and sharing the stories of my fellow Marines, I’ve nearly been shot several times.
I’ve wound up pinned down in a muddy canal by sniper fire, I’ve sprinted hundreds of yards and low crawled across arid farmland under fire and have watched stunned as a rocket-propelled grenade spiraled through the air, bounced off of a door-frame and skidded to a halt 10 feet away.
After the first time you take contact, the elation and excitement starts to fade. The next time you don’t smile as wide or laugh as hard, and soon after that you’ve stopped grinning entirely.
I’ve even come to realize how deceptive the word ‘contact’ is. It’s such a detached way of saying enemy fire, almost antiseptic. It’s clean and neat, and an absolutely unfitting way to describe combat.
Without ever meaning to, I find myself making a mental checklist of what has happened, and what might be in store for me down the road.
Small arms fire? Check. Sniper fire? Check. RPGs? Check. IED? Blank.
You stop looking at what has happened and begin to wonder about what will happen. Based on what you’ve gone through, what do you have left? How many more close calls do you have in you? Will there be enough lucky breaks to see you through to the end?
Over time, the feeling of invincibility you felt when you first heard incoming enemy fire, or the false bravado that took hold when you shot back, starts to give way to a ceaseless angst.
The sense of trepidation is only made harder to fend off due to sporadic and fierce ambushes — which frequently end as abruptly as they began — as our attackers break off and blend back in with the civilian populace.
Oftentimes Marines and sailors who are providing security or are on patrol are fired upon, and are forced to react to the situation, rarely being able to take the offensive.
Constantly being the victims of attacks makes you wonder at times whether or not they simply don’t like you, on an individual level. Do the men we’re fighting have something personal against me? What did I ever do? Does he see our faces through his sights? What marks you? Is it just the uniform, or is it something else?
As time wears on, perhaps the most startling realization is that this looming threat of injury and death isn’t always brought on by something violent. Nothing is irrelevant, every choice you make, or don’t make, has the potential to get you killed, or worse, your friends.
The most innocuous details come to hold increasing significance. An untied bootlace, an empty canteen, a dead battery, these things can compound and lead to disaster. If you don’t drink enough water at a given time, you may become a heat casualty and while the medevac flies in to carry you away for treatment, you’ve just slowed down your patrol and made them easy targets.
With this realization, you begin to look at things differently. As you start to see your chances of survival dwindle, understanding that sooner or later everyone’s number gets called, you’re forced to take stock of yourself, of what you have accomplished and what you still need to do.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of these experiences is the clarity of focus you receive afterward. Once you’ve faced the sobering reality that all you’ve done, all you’ll ever do can be ended in a moment, just from a lucky round, or an unlucky step, you’re able to free yourself from the burden of petty doubts and concerns. Sociopolitical issues and scandals no longer rouse you as they used to, much of it begins to appear petty. You’re left only with the desire to live a good life as fully as possible, for as long as possible.
Three wild days and nights: the first 72 hours in Marjah with 1/6 mortarmen, part I.
The first installment in a three-part-series chronicling the experiences of Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during their participation in Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Afghanistan.
MARJAH, Afghanistan — Several young men huddle around a small video camera, their faces bathed in the soft hue of its LCD screen, in the dark confines of an abandoned compound in Marjah, Afghanistan, March 20. As the Marines gather around, pulling up boxes of food and bottled water to use as stools, Lance Cpl. James R. Borzillieri, a gunner with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, shows fellow Marines the video clips he made during the first several days of fighting in Marjah.
Feb. 13, 2010 — D Day
"Well, it's seven-thirty in the morning and we're here, sitting in an open field in Marjah and we're slowly being surrounded," says the smiling face of Borzillieri on the first clip before it's turned off and another is played. The second clip takes place an hour and a half later, but starts the same way, Borzillieri, with a serene smile. "Well, they're shooting at us now and we're still out in the open," he says before turning away from the camera and grabbing his M-240 medium machine gun. The video continues that way, with Borzillieri firing at insurgents who fire back.
Intermittently, Borzillieri turns back to the camera for the occasional update, saying frankly, "I think I got one," or "they just fired a rocket-propelled grenade at us."
The fear and apprehension present in the Marines that day never shows on the video, but it's there. A nonchalant comment or random chuckle is offset by wild eyes or heads on a swivel, which move left and right as rounds impact all around them.
"The only thing that really prepped me for this deployment was my last. Nothing you can do to prepare, except do it," said Borzillieri, who was with 1/6 during their last deployment to Afghanistan, when the battalion saw combat in Garmsir. "Trying to prepare for combat, you need to understand that you can't control who gets hit or who's coming back. You just have to keep your head down and fire back. Keeping your composure is key. Emotions will get the better of you if you let them."
Crouched next to Borzillieri in the video was his assistant gunner, Lance Cpl. Allan J. Fenley with the 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6, who is also on his second deployment to Afghanistan and was with 1/6 during their last tour.
"I kept thinking about and mentioning my family," said Fenley. "Even before things started happening, I was just thinking hard about family and how I need to get home to them. I knew what was happening. I just wanted to stay alive for it."
Even before the fight began, the Marines were forced to struggle with conflicting emotions; a rising sense of frustration being the most commonplace.
"Since we first landed, my frustrations started then," said Cpl. Joshua T. Hurst, the fire direction center chief for the 81 mm Mortar Platoon, with Weapons Company, 1/6. "We were spread out on different flights, and landed on two different sides of a canal. We needed to get the gun line up before the sun rose, but our weapons system was spread out amongst the two different groups."
Due to the weight of their ammunition and the weapon's system itself, the mortar section was broken up and placed on different helicopters before being flown into Marjah, but when they landed, they had to regroup in the dark and quickly set up their position, Hurst said, adding that when he landed in the city, the base plate for one their mortar tubes was on another helicopter.
"We were sitting behind our packs in an open field, after being told this was the most hostile place in the country, but nothing was going on, until it was," said Hurst. "We started taking small-arms and indirect fire from every direction. Rounds were cracking over our heads, RPGs were whipping by, and then we got the call to pick up our gear and move to a different location. When the snipers started to shoot, my frustrations reached their peak, thinking 'if I move an inch I'm going to get shot.'"
As the video goes black, and the footage from the first day is finished, Borzillieri looks around the room, which has grown more crowded since the video began playing.
Although they experienced those first few days first hand, every Marine nearby has gravitated towards the camera, wanting to see it again. Thumbing the play button, Borzillieri starts the video of their second day in Marjah.
Three wild days and nights: the first 72 hours in Marjah with 1/6 mortarmen, part II.
The second installment in a three-part-series chronicling the experiences of Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during their participation in Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Afghanistan.
MARJAH, Afghanistan — In a dark room, inside of a compound in Marjah, Afghanistan, several Marines huddle together, March 20. Some nights it's for warmth, but at this moment it's to relive the first few days of fighting when they participated in Operation Moshtarak. All the men in the room were there that day, but there's something about seeing it on a screen that makes it more real.
After checking to make sure everyone is ready, Lance Cpl. James R. Borzillieri, a gunner with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, presses play on his personal video camera, and the show begins.
Feb. 14, 2010 — Valentine's Day in Marjah
The screen glows white and then the image comes sharply into focus. Marines lounge about a dusty compound, the time stamp on the bottom of the screen reads 8:30 a.m. The camera pans over Marines curled up or huddled together in the corners of the room, trying to catch just a few more minutes of sleep before the day really starts.
As the screen goes black and Borzillieri plays the next clip, made just an hour after the first, something is clearly different. The camera is shifted upward, and the face of Lance Cpl. Allan J. Fenley with the 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6, looks down at the screen.
"Alright, there's some firefights going on outside our compound right now," says Fenley, his voice raspy, but clear. Panning downwards, Lance Cpl. Richard A. Louke a mortarman with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6, sits on the floor fiddling with something in his hands. "Louke's sewing up a sheath for his knife, but we're gonna go take a look at this," continues the narration, interrupted momentarily by the sound of intense gunfire from the guard posts around the compound.
The camera points up toward the gun positions, where Marines engage a distant enemy with their machine guns and respective weapons.
As the sounds of frantic voices and impacting rounds blare over the video camera's small speakers, the scene is strangely peaceful. The Marines inside the compound walls calmly go about their daily chores; shaving, making breakfast, reading books or napping.
"When I woke up, only one day had passed and I knew it was just the beginning," said Louke, who after getting his bearings on where he was that morning, finally ate his first meal since the insert began. Eating a chicken, bacon and ranch sandwich from his MRE, he took a moment to look around.
The gun line was set up, which was a good thing, he said, because when daylight breaks, the Taliban start shooting.
"At around five in the morning we heard the morning prayer, played over the loud speakers and knew that it was going to hit the fan all over again," Louke said. "Hearing that sound, it's ominous and eerie, like a harbinger, because you know what's going to happen next. Soon all the posts were getting engaged and we didn't even have a fire mission yet, we were just sitting there. With the posts getting shot at and guns engaging, but you're not firing back, it gets frustrating when people are fighting and you're not. As much as you'd love to get up there and fight, you'd just get in the way, and for what?" said Louke. "For your own validation? You need to know your part and perform it well."
Louke touched upon a feeling that was likely present in all the Marines that day; a sense of frustrated uninvolvement, and at times, powerlessness or even resignation.
"The sound of whistling bullets turns back the evolutionary clock and turns our finely tuned brains raw and primal," Louke said.
"There comes a point in combat when all the adrenaline has faded. During that time I was working on a sheath for my knife. I could either stand out there and gawk at the post being shot at, or occupy myself in some way. There's a point where you have to realize that things are out of your control."
As the day is revisited through the series of short clips which start and stop, picking up anywhere from a 30 minutes to an hour after the last, a scene of tense waiting and frustration unfolds. Marines stand at their mortar tubes with rounds in hand, waiting for permission to fire, while those on post continue to take small-arms fire from insurgents.
Abruptly, a three-letter word is screamed, which causes every Marine to react instinctively.
Spinning through the air, a rocket flies past the post closest to the bazaar, hurdling toward the gun line, and the platoon of Marines caught out in the open. It flies over their heads, slams into the doorframe of the compound and skids along the ground, failing to detonate.
By the time it has stopped, there's not a Marine in sight, everyone having jumped behind cover or leapt through broken windows.
Looking up from the camera, Borzillieri smirks as he remembers. There is one clip left. His smile is contagious, and the other Marines start to chuckle prematurely as he presses the play button.
The screen is black. The time stamp reads 6:32 p.m. As the camera pans, a red glow comes into focus. The skyline is engulfed in flames. Marines talk amongst one another as others yell in the distance trying to figure out what is going on.
Fenley, still narrating, comments to the camera, "I think we just got mortared and they blew up the gas station, but this is as far as I'm gonna go, in case it blows up, 'cause I don't wanna be in the middle of it."
"I was sitting there, listening to Credence Clearwater Revival played over speakers on my iPod, and I kept thinking, 'I hope it doesn't blow up anymore, but if I'm dying, I'm listening to music,'" said Borzillieri, with a chuckle.
By the time night fell, the realization sunk in — this was only the second day of the insert, and it already had the feel of a Hollywood blockbuster.
"When the gas station lit on fire that night," Louke pauses and lets out a laugh, which slips into a giggle as he remembers, "it was unimaginably surreal. It was definitely something out of a movie. I just sort of surrendered myself to the idea that it was completely helpless. I didn't put gear on; I just sat there and watched resignedly."
"It was like a dark and demented wonderland," said Louke, and was made more poignant when a sergeant with Bravo Co., 1/6, poked his head into where Louke and the other mortarmen were taking cover and warned them to "keep their mouths open in case the gas station explodes, or else their eyes might pop out of their sockets and their ear drums might explode."
"Of course, all this [the entire event] happened just at sunset and the prayer call was happening all over again like some haunting refrain," said Louke.
As the clip finishes, the Marines talk amongst themselves, joking and smiling as if they were enjoying the rerun of a show that they caught live.
Three wild days and nights: the first 72 hours in Marjah with 1/6 mortarmen, part III.
The final installment in a three-part-series chronicling the experiences of Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, during their participation in Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Afghanistan.
MARJAH, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — Back in the states, people buy tickets to blockbuster movies. They fight to get the front row seats and squabble over who gets to put their drink in the combination cup holder/armrest.
It is in this spirit of cinema etiquette, that a handful of Marines with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, argue and bicker playfully with one another, fighting to get a good position so they can watch 'their' movie on a three-inch screen, March 20.
Their six-by-nine foot room, which has become a makeshift theater, is packed, and in lieu of popcorn and soda the Marines eat wheat snack bread and pour iced tea packets into water bottles.
As far away from a night at the movies as this is, there are some similarities. These men bought their 'tickets' when they enlisted, and since then, have made the best of their experiences. And now, in the quiet confines of their compound, they are taking a moment to relive and remember what they went through just over a month ago.
Pressing play on the video camera and turning up the volume, the director of the show, Lance Cpl. James R. Borzillieri, a gunner with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, starts the film.
Feb. 15 — Half load - FIRE!
The camera glares white for a moment before it is flooded with color. A pale blue sky is offset by coffee-brown walls and fine, sandy earth. Marines stand at their mortars with high-explosive rounds, held tight in hand. They are waiting for approval to fire at an insurgent position, and relieve a patrol of Marines caught out in the open.
For just a moment it's quiet, before Lance Cpl. Allan J. Fenley, a mortarman with 81 mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6, begins to narrate.
"Where are the mortars," Fenley starts, but can't finish the question as rounds begin to slam into the post above him. The Marines can hardly fire back, so intense is the attack.
Marines are screaming, swearing. One yells to those taking cover in a nearby room, "get your flack on, get your flack on!" while another screams from the gun line, "let's get these rounds moving!"
Suddenly, a massive boom rocks the post and showers the Marines below in dust and debris.
The post was just hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
It's quiet for a moment, before the call for corpsmen is heard and repeated urgently.
As they try to understand what's unfolding around them, Cpl. Joshua T. Hurst, the fire direction center chief for the 81 mm Mortar Platoon, with Weapons Company, 1/6, steps past the camera and shouts the words the others have been waiting to hear.
Those on the gun line immediately follow through, yelling in support and pumping fists, while Hurst stands in the foreground, urging them on.
About 26 high-explosive rounds leap into the air, and several seconds later, hit on target. The Marines pinned down now have a chance to make it back to the compound, and for just a moment, the posts have stopped taking contact.
As Marines take stock of the situation, they confirm that no one was hurt in the attack, although one Marine was hit square in his Kevlar helmet by an incoming round.
"From what we know, around the middle of the afternoon we received a call for fire, to support a patrol that was taking contact," Hurst later explained.
"We waited about ten minutes, then an explosion went off on one of the posts and we thought everyone was dead," said Hurst. "I grabbed my gear, ran out to the gun line and called for fire. Marines' lives were at stake. In doing so, we were able to cover the egress for the Marines on the battlefield."
"I knew where the Marines on the deck were and between that and the explosion on post, I thought it was necessary," said Hurst. "I provided fire to prevent the death of Marines if I could. After the fact, my choice would have been the same. Under the [rules of engagement] I feel it was justified. The ROEs are in defense of self and defense of others."
Present that day, was Staff Sgt. Nelson A. Adames, a section leader with 81mm Mortar Platoon, Weapons Company, 1/6, and Hurst's immediate superior.
"What caused that to go off the way it did — Marines getting shot, RPGs coming into the compound and Marines out there pinned down in need of help," Adames said. "You want to help and support them. That RPG hit the compound and Cpl. Hurst made that unit leader's call, and in doing so probably saved a lot of lives. Small-unit leaders sometimes don't get the recognition they deserve, which [Hurst] certainly does."
"Small-unit leaders have to make those judgment calls," said Maj. John E. Harris, the battalion operations officer for 1/6. "Corporals have always been making those calls."
The responsibility of unit leaders like Hurst, 25, is made clear in such moments when they must make tough decisions that may have negative outcomes for themselves later on, explained Adames.
"A lot of it, with individuals like that, young men and women join the Marine Corps for something different, these decisions they're making, most individuals their age don't have to make choices like this," Adames said. "They make decisions that save lives. They will carry these traits with them for the rest of their lives."
As the video clip nears its end, the camera pans back to Hurst for a moment. He looks out towards the gun line, shakes his head and walks away.
For the moment, the post has stopped taking fire, and later that day, the patrol that was pinned down returns and the patrol leaders seek him out, shake his hand and thank him and his Marines for what they did.
"It's not about trying to get glory or attention," Hurst said. "I did it to make sure no one died. That's the job of any Marine, to make sure his brother doesn't die. I have Marines out there I can help save as long they approve my mission."
Putting the video camera away and looking around at the room, Borzillieri once again cracks a smile, but says nothing. Every Marine in the room grins from ear to ear.
This was their favorite part.
They did what was needed, and they know it.