By Meg Flanagan
On March 4, many service women learned that thousands of their brothers-in-arms had been sharing their pictures online via the Marines United Facebook group, and other similar groups. They also learned the depth and breadth of the commentary by fellow service members about those pictures.
Amid the immediate outcry, one Marine veteran sprang into action. Captain Justine Elena began an effort to support her fellow veterans. Elena began Female Marines United.
“We want to sure that there are more people out there who support women in armed forces and demand respect for all women who have met the standards asked of them in service of their country,” Elena explained. “It felt like there wasn’t anything out there that was immediately positive, and I wanted to create something that would be a space for those who condemned the behavior of Marines United and similar sites that went beyond the comment sections of news articles surrounding the issue or on Facebook.”
Female Marines United is raising money for donation to Headstrong, a non-profit aiming to provide free mental health services to veterans. Elena is spearheading this effort alone, with help from friends and family spreading the word via social media.
“We want to sure that there are more people out there who support women in armed forces and demand respect for all women who have met the standards asked of them in service of their country,” explained Elena. “We’re hoping to raise $30,000 for Headstrong, a non-profit that helps provide free mental healthcare treatment for veterans.”
As of press time, Female Marines United had raised $23,054 of their $30,000 goal. Donations have been coming in from across America, military and civilian. Most have been between $5 and $100. Some have come with touching stories and messages of support. There have also been some big donors. Notably, Jada Pinkett Smith donated $10,000 to Female Marines United.
“I’m not sure how [Jada Pinkett Smith] found out about the campaign, but I was in tears when I saw that update,” confessed Elena. “It’s been really wonderful to witness all of the support coming in from people who work in entertainment, in the veteran support organization industry, and people who are connected to the military in any way. We’ve seen donations from people of different generations of military veterans, and that truly leaves a lasting impression.”
While Elena was not personally victimized, she has connections to other female service members who experienced similar public shaming. She also sees this as part of a larger pattern of the culture, in and out of the military.
“This sort of thing isn’t something that’s new to the Marine Corps or society at-large,” she explained. “It affects me because in America it’s not uncommon to hold members of the military on a kind of pedestal.”
While Elena was not surprised by the actions of those associated with Marines United, she hopes that this scandal will cause fellow service members and veterans to reflect on their own actions and reactions. She also hopes that this inspires other to better live up to leadership expectations in the future.
“It’s important to understand how your gender impacts your opportunities as well as the mentalities of your present culture or those around you,” Elena commented. “Not standing up can easily be associated with complacency. Part of leadership is the courage to deal with uncomfortable situations, and tackling sexism has changed from generation to generation of Marines.”
Moving forward, Elena hopes that all service members take important lessons from the Marines United scandal and fallout. While she recognizes that this does not reflect the vast majority of our troops, she also believes that the military should try to behave better.
“I feel that those in the military should hold themselves to higher standards,” explained Elena. “I don’t believe that this is the sort of behavior that people want of their military, and I also don’t believe that it’s representative of the majority of military members.”
Elena believes that now is the time to act to change the climate and policies regarding sexual harassment and social media usage in today’s military. There is enough support for the military to truly examine these policies and for everyone to work together to create a more equitable military for all.
“Women in the military and spouses in the military are such a small community, but this sort of scandal impacts everything,” she said. “It is a scar on the legacy that our country has spent centuries to build and preserve. It’s all of our responsibility to protect that. [There] has to be a change in an entire culture and in how we lead our lives and value one another no matter where we are from or what our job is.”
Going forward, Elena hopes to continue this fight and looks forward to cheering on others furthering this effort.
“I’m really glad that other efforts have started such as NotInMyMarineCorps.Org which has provided another outlet for people to speak up against online abuse and offers resources and opportunities for someone to show their support,” said Elena. “I hope we see more like it and can continue to highlight the impact of this type of abuse and the ways that we can combat it and ensure it doesn’t get overlooked.”
“Next year will mark the 100th year of when women were allowed to enter the U.S. Marine Corps. We should make that year something we are all incredibly proud of.”