Exclusive: Marine Leaders Back Embattled Reservist Harassed Over Nude Pictures; Request Retraction of Story

A U.S. Marine in Romania demonstrates their capabilities during a training exercise. Amid a barrage of criticisms from current and former U.S. Marines over a Marine Corps Times article which revealed the identity of a Marine reservist being harassed over nude pictures of herself, the service’s top brass backed the embattled Marine and asked for a full retraction of the story from the independent newspaper which covers the U.S. Marine Corps. Sgt. Michelle Reif/U.S. Marine Corps

Amid a barrage of criticisms from current and former U.S. Marines over an article which revealed the identity of a Marine reservist being harassed over nude pictures of herself, the service's top brass backed the embattled Marine and asked for a full retraction of the story, according to an official letter obtained by Newsweek.

The article, published Tuesday by the Marine Corps Times, an independent newspaper unaffiliated with the U.S. government which covers the U.S. Marine Corps, identified by name a single mother and Marine reservist who was being harassed by her male colleagues after nude photos of her were distributed to Marines participating in military training exercises in Twentynine Palms, California.

The photographs of the Marine reservist, whose name is being withheld by Newsweek to shield her from further harassment, were taken from a paid website where she sold images of herself to help pay bills and provide financial support for her child.

In a Wednesday letter to Marine Corps Times, obtained by Newsweek from a Defense Department official, Marine leaders asked for the story to be retracted and accused the newspaper of shoddy journalism in identifying the Marine reservist and exposing her to further online abuse.

The main point of contention was over the Marine reservist's inexperience with the press as she requested to be anonymous in the article but was told that anonymity would not be granted because she had already posted about the harassment she was receiving on Twitter. She had fewer than 1000 followers at the time of publication. The Marine has since deactivated her account.

"We understand that the timeline with this interview may have been different than is customary when requesting to be an anonymous source (i.e. she may have given the interview and then requested anonymity after the fact), but we do not believe that you can reasonably expect a service member who is unacquainted with the process for requesting anonymity to request it in the typical manner," wrote U.S. Marine Corps Captain Joseph Butterfield to Howard Altman and Andrea Scott, Marine Times managing editor and editor, respectively.

Marisa Woytek, a former Marine who faced similar online abuse during the Marines United nude photo scandal in 2017 and who has been in contact with the Marine reservist this week, told Newsweek this was the first time the Marine reservist had ever spoken to a reporter and that the ground rules governing anonymity or journalism practices were not explained to her before the story published. The full letter can be read at the bottom of this article.

"We want to make our stance clear in how our Marines are approached by and ultimately treated by your agency," Butterfield continues. "Regardless of the situation, we believe your article unjustifiably placed one of our Marines in a position that only served to exacerbate the backlash that she was already dealing with...regardless of how you engage with our Marines, either officially or unofficially, we believe they should be treated with respect and dignity."

Defense Department officials who spoke to Newsweek under condition of anonymity said Marine Commandant General David Berger and senior Marine officials wanted to immediately support the Marine reservist as the Marine Corps Times article gained traction online Tuesday evening and was picked up by other major news outlets.

Contacted by Newsweek on Thursday evening, the Marine reservist said she did not want to speak at length about the issue due to pending investigations but said she has "never felt prouder to be a Marine" as she choked back tears once learning about the letter to the Marine Corps Times.

Former Marines Newsweek spoke to praised Berger and senior Marine Corps leaders for acting swiftly to support one of their own. The actions by top brass came as a surprise to many observers due to a widely, but not universally, held view that Marines leaders tend not to fully support victims of sexual harassment and are slow to react when it occurs.

"I thought senior Marine leaders were going to crush this woman once the Marine Corps Times wrote an article because this could be embarrassing to the overall image of the Corps," said former Marine Sergeant Matt Moores. "But when I found out they were going to support and protect her, I was proud. To me, that is what the Marine Corps is about...it's about standing up for another...and you don't often see that too often from the top levels."

Andrew Tilghman, the executive editor for Military Times who oversees production of the Marine Corps Times, responded to an inquiry from Newsweek on Thursday about the Marine Corps' letter and the article's rebuke by a number of the military and veteran communities.

"We fully understood the sensitivity of this story when we began pursuing it, even though the Marine involved here had already publicly disclosed the situation on her own personal Twitter account. When we contacted her, she was forthcoming with personal information and provided photographs of herself to our reporter for use in the story. The Marine indicated that she was eager to tell her story and tweeted publicly about her interview with Marine Corps Times."

Newsweek reviewed screenshots and emails of the exchange between Marine Corps Times reporter Philip Athey and the Marine reservist before the article was published on Tuesday. The timestamps and information show that the article published before the Marine answered questions from the Times and before she provided photographs of herself for use in the story.

Woytek told Newsweek the Marine reservist was in class at the time the story was coming together and that they could not respond to the reporter's questions in the timeframe they wanted. The original story did reflect the Marine's online conversation with the reporter.

The Marine reservist—unaware that the story had already published and that editors had denied her anonymity request—emailed photographs and answers to Times' questions a half-hour after the story had already published and while she was still in class.

The Marine Corps Times article was then updated. During this time, Woytek said the Marine reservist did not know anonymity had been denied because she was distracted by classroom instruction and had not seen the update from Athey that editors had denied the request.

Woytek told Newsweek the Marine reservist did not expect the article to drop online suddenly and thought she would have had the opportunity to review quotes.

"At no point was anonymity promised, explicit or implied, nor did she suggest that publication of the story was contingent upon her anonymity," said Tilghman. "After the story was published and she and others raised serious concerns about her name in the story, we took the extraordinary measure of revising the story to remove her name based on her concerns."

"[The] Marine Corps Times carefully considers all of our editorial decisions and strives to uphold the highest journalistic standards and serve the interests of our readers," Tilghman added.

In a follow-up question from Newsweek, the Marine Corps Times did not clarify why serious concerns for the Marine reservist only became apparent after publication despite her receiving harassment prior to the story.

Update, 12/13, 5:45 p.m. This story has been updated to clarify that the Marine had communicated with the Marine Corps Times reporter before the story was published.

Editor's Note: Prior to joining Newsweek, James LaPorta freelanced for multiple news organizations, among them, The Military Times.

James LaPorta is a senior correspondent for Newsweek covering military affairs. He is a former U.S. Marine infantryman and a veteran of the Afghanistan War. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta