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Last week, a disturbing TikTok video went viral. It shows a female Marine in the rawest kind of distress, the kind where you can barely catch your breath. This anguish is over a sexual assault. Or, more precisely, the Marine Corps’ response to a sexual assault. The woman, Sgt. Dalina, is claiming that a man who attacked her is being protected by the Marine command structure.
Erin Kirk-Cuomo is used to being disturbed by what she sees in the military. She was sexually assaulted while she was a Marine, too. And when she talks, you can hear in her voice both her righteous anger and a kind of expectation—that, of course, this is just the way things are; it’s the way things have always been. Kirk-Cuomo says that in the Marines, the physical assault is often just the beginning of a woman’s victimization. She’s knows the frustrating cycle well because before she founded her organization, Not in My Marine Corps, back in 2014, she went through a version of it herself.
But the attention this video drew surprised her. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kirk-Cuomo about her experiences, the Marine’s problem with sexual assault, and whether this viral video could get the corps to take it seriously. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Can you speak personally? Take me back to who you were when you joined the Marines and when you realized there was a real systemic problem there when it came to women.
Erin Kirk-Cuomo: I actually enlisted in the Marine Corps very late. I had graduated from college already. I declined to become an officer because I wanted a specific position, which was a public affairs and combat cameraman, so I went the enlisted route. I was older than all my drill instructors in boot camp, and during boot camp was the first time I was exposed to sexual harassment.
What was that like?
It was shocking. I was multiple times harassed by male drill instructors. At one point in time, I was delivering paperwork. This was at the very end of 13 weeks of boot camp, and I was delivering paperwork down the line of all the platoons ready for graduation. And I walked past the male platoons and the drill instructor made a lewd sexual sound at me, and his entire platoon of male recruits was laughing. And when I told my female drill instructor and she confronted the male drill instructor, she was removed from her position for several weeks.
So very early on, it sounds like, you understood or were taught this is the way it’s going to be.
We were taught in boot camp that there are three types of women Marines. You’re either a slut, a bitch, or a dyke.
Pick which one you want to be. And those were the only options that were given to us.
When did assault become part of your experience and when did you realize other women were going through the same thing?
I was mercilessly harassed pretty much all the way up to my first duty station, which was the first time I was sexually assaulted in my barracks room. I woke up in the middle of the night to the duty NCO standing over my bed with his hands down my pants. And that was the first time that I was sexually assaulted.
The first time.
I then did not feel safe in my barracks room. So on my small, meager pay, I went out and got a very small apartment out in town to try and protect myself. And that didn’t work either. They would use recall rosters to find out where I lived.
And what would happen once people knew where you lived?
The second time when I was physically raped was when I was asleep on my couch and someone found my address on a recall roster and broke into my apartment. And I woke up with him on top of me. So those were the two, I would say the worst. But the harassment and inappropriate groping continued throughout my entire military career. And I honestly thought that I was the only one that this was happening to. I thought that I just must be an anomaly. And I stayed silent because I was afraid of retaliation. I was afraid of being called a blue falcon, which in the Marine Corps is a buddy fucker.
Buddy fucker is like a snitch.
It’s what they call snitches. And I just stayed silent until I had been out of the Marine Corps for a good several years, and I was talking in a group chat with a couple of other female veterans, and we all realized that something similar had happened to all of us. And that’s how our advocacy began. It was that realization that it was still happening, it did happen to all of us, and that we needed to do something about it.
Now, you spend a lot of time in the darkest parts of the internet, looking for people you can help.
We definitely follow anything Marine. I have people that are in a lot of closed Marine Corps groups that are only available to men—so kind of spies, I guess you could call them.
But you don’t really have to look that far to find misogyny in the Marine Corps, right? It’s just right out in the open.
This is the actual Facebook page for the MCRD San Diego. It’s run by the Marine Corps public affairs officer. But here’s a rather innocuous comment: “What the fuck is happening to my corps?” This is in response to women now training at San Diego. The first group of women went there last week to start training. Previously, all Marine Corps training was segregated by gender. But now, due to a congressional mandate, MCRD San Diego accepted their first women last week.
One of the ways sexual assault in the military has gotten worse since you were on active duty is that it doesn’t necessarily end with a physical encounter. Talk a little bit about what you call “tech sexual assault” and this Marines United case from back in 2017.
Marines United was a private Facebook group of upward of 40,000 active duty male only Marine Corps, veterans, and British Royal Marines that were engaging not only in tech sexual assault—so nonconsensual intimate imagery sharing of active duty and veteran women Marines—but also were stalking, doxxing, and violently talking about how they would sexually assault women that were serving as Marines in the Marine Corps.
And they had a link a Dropbox with pictures of women.
It had a link to a Dropbox, but then also a Google image cache. So they had multiple ways to share it.
How was this Facebook group discovered?
Some male Marines who had very strong moral compass brought it to light. They had infiltrated the group when they had gotten an inkling that this was happening, went in and pretty much scrubbed as much information as they could from it in order to release the information.
The scandal resulted in the Marines’ highest-ranking officer, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, admitting that the Marines didn’t just have an issue with sexual assault; they had a cultural problem. You’ve called this TikTok video that went viral Marines United 2.0. Is that because it’s revealing how even what was put in place in the wake of Marines United simply isn’t sufficient?
Correct. We are still seeing, consistently, tech sexual assault on multiple different boards, not only on Facebook, Dropbox, Google. They share them on anonymous image boards and AnonIB, any of the channels, as well as through Discord links. So they’ve just gotten a little bit more savvy on how to get away with it.
Can we talk about possible solutions? You’ve talked about how what was put in place after Marines United clearly wasn’t enough. You’ve talked about how the Marines are not responding appropriately now, but we do have the secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, saying this TikTok video that came out was deeply disturbing. Does that give you hope that something’s going to happen here?
Listen, despite doing this for so long and wading through a space that is very toxic and disheartening, I am an optimistic person by heart. So, I definitely do see where we have grown. But I also see where we can go.
So what would it take? There have been discussions in Congress about changing the way sexual assault is reported to make it more likely that women will come forward and get a better result.
That is my No. 1 ask when I talk to members of Congress, as well as talking to Secretary Austin: that the chain-of-command system is no longer working. You cannot investigate yourself. So we need a separate body of investigators and prosecutors that are specifically trained to handle these kinds of cases and prosecute them.
Because if you come forward as a Marine, you’re coming forward to your boss?
Correct. We are a huge proponent of the military justice improvement process, and part of that is taking all of these investigations and prosecutions away from the chain of command and giving them to an independent body. Right now, all of these cases are investigated by the same command that the perpetrators are under, so oftentimes we see that they are very good friends with the person who is conducting the investigation, and there’s a conflict of interest there.
How does that play out?
Well, take a look at Vanessa Guillen, [the 20-year-old Army specialist stationed at Fort Hood in Texas]. She came forward to her family and said that she was being sexually harassed—they believe potentially sexually assaulted; we’re not sure of that. But she was afraid to go to her commanding officers because they were friends with her harasser, and her harasser ended up murdering her, dismembering her, and discarding her. And Army CID was told that she had reported to her family that she was being sexually harassed. And they said, “We have no compulsory evidence that this is true, so we cannot use this in our investigation.” Lo and behold, two months later, her body is found, her harasser is about to be arrested, and he kills himself. There is no justice in this system right now.
This is a national security crisis, because if we cannot recruit and retain the smartest and most efficient, people, because they want to get out, because they’re not welcomed, they’re dehumanized, they’re sexually harassed and sexually assaulted mercilessly—who wants to be in an organization like that?
I was looking at the website for your group, and it’s so Marine. Like, the way that you click through to report if something’s happened to you, you click a little button that says Semper Fi. It seems like you still have a fondness for this institution that you are also so deeply frustrated with.
Yeah, becoming a Marine was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m very proud of that eagle, globe, and anchor. As Marines say, you’re a Marine for life. It changes the way that you walk through life. You walk different. You talk different. You’re supposed to act different.
Would you become a Marine all over again?
That’s a loaded question. When I have young women who ask me if they should join the Marine Corps, I tell them: At this moment, no, I cannot in good faith encourage you to join this organization. No matter how proud I am of my accomplishments, I would steer them into other directions.