Task & Purpose: A Few Bad Men: How the Marine Corps fails to punish senior officer misconduct, time and again
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By Paul Szoldra
Editor’s note: This story includes graphic descriptions of rape.
There is little dispute over what her commander did to her, but Rebecca Cooper is certain she is leaving the Marine Corps because of it.
It was November 2019 when Cooper, a Marine captain, alleged that Col. Lawrence “Larry” Miller had sexually harassed her repeatedly after she had joined his staff the year before. Miller, 52, often told sexually-charged stories in the office, she claimed, and had blamed her for her own rape moments after she reported it to him. After she submitted a sworn statement, things moved rather quickly: Miller was transferred, an investigation was opened, Cooper and others were interviewed. It was over by January of this year, though Cooper didn’t learn the results until March.
Remarkably, Miller did not deny many of Cooper’s claims, and the Marine investigator assigned to look into the matter substantiated much of what Cooper had told him, according to the investigation report. Yet what the Marine Corps decided to do next was perhaps unremarkable: Almost nothing.
Though soon after Cooper submitted her complaint, Miller was relieved of command — an administrative action that is not considered an official punishment — the general who oversaw the inquiry settled the matter with a page 11 entry in Miller’s service record, a non-punitive counseling designed to correct poor performance.
“If that had been a sergeant talking to a lance corporal, he probably would’ve been put through the wringer,” said one Marine official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity since they were not authorized to discuss the case.
Cooper resigned her commission soon after learning of the decision, according to two Marine officials familiar with the matter. Miller is up for mandatory retirement later this month.
And so the Marines will lose two officers this year: A colonel unpunished for substantiated misconduct in the twilight of his career, and a captain with many years of service left — if only the Marine Corps valued hers more.
This article, which is based on interviews with Marine Corps officials, military justice experts, and the official military investigation into Miller obtained through a public records request, largely tells the story of one of many military investigations. Still, the months-long probe and its aftermath serve as a microcosm of the Marine Corps’ fraught history with women in its ranks, and the service’s tendency to conceal senior officer misconduct rather than weed it out.
“The appropriate forum for senior officer misconduct is a court martial,” said Col. Don Christensen (Ret.), a former Air Force judge. “But the reality is that none of the services have the fortitude to actually hold senior officers accountable.”
Rebecca Cooper is not a real name. Task & Purpose has used a pseudonym here to protect the identity of the victim, who declined to comment for this article. Miller also declined to comment.
Sweeping senior officer misconduct under the rug
The official reason the Marine Corps gave for removing Miller from command on Nov. 21, 2019 was vague. According to a statement at the time, the relief was prompted by a “loss of trust and confidence” in Miller’s ability to lead, a stock phrase nearly all military spokesmen use in response to officers relieved of command for misdeeds ranging from drunk driving to lying about their ship’s whereabouts.
It’s similarly rare to learn how a once-trusted officer was punished after their fall, as many are given non-punitive “administrative action” instead of court-martial, which, due to privacy laws, prevents the public from learning how the Corps’ top brass ultimately holds one of their own accountable. (When pressed, a Marine spokesman told Task & Purpose there were allegations against Miller that were under investigation, and his removal was not based on a single incident, but “the totality of his job performance and personal leadership choices.”)
Indeed, courts-martial use is down substantially across the military. As Christensen pointed out, between 1959 and 1960 there were nearly 125,000 courts-martial cases in the United States. But more than half a century later, the number of cases each year rarely exceeds 2,000 as the use of administrative action has increased, prompting concern in 2018 from then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that some commanders had gone soft on misconduct.
“Leaders must be willing to choose the harder right over the easier wrong,” Mattis wrote in a memo at the time, adding that “administrative actions should not be the default method to address illicit conduct simply because it is less burdensome than the military justice system.”
Even the Marine Corps seems to agree, with its own leadership guide for commanders noting that “ensuring transparency of the process in handling officer misconduct can go a long way in supporting good order and discipline within the unit. Commands can be pulled apart if the junior enlisted believe other ranks have privileges not shared by them, particularly when it comes to military justice matters.”
Yet courts-martial are rare for senior officers, according to Christensen, who said that junior service members are often kicked out of the service or thrown in jail while senior officers often get written reprimands for identical crimes, a practice colloquially known as ‘different spanks for different ranks.’
“My opinion is that you need a much stronger response,” said Christensen, now the president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims. “You don’t do that with administrative actions. You have courts-martial to enforce discipline.”
“The generals and admirals don’t have the courage to hold each other accountable,” he said.
An investigation begins
According to the investigative report into Miller’s conduct, allegations first surfaced in August 2019 that the colonel, an infantry officer in charge of the Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment, had sexually harassed one of his female subordinates. That month in a command climate survey, which the military uses to gauge a commander’s effectiveness by soliciting anonymous feedback, a woman assigned to the command had written negatively about sexual harassment and Miller’s “unprofessional demeanor towards her.” Though the remarks were anonymous, the survey had only 65 respondents in a unit with far fewer women than men.
The comment irked Miller, according to the report, who reviewed the survey results with his entire staff. As one major recalled, Miller found the comment “extremely concerning,” and was upset the survey also showed a decline in the number of Marines who felt unit leaders took seriously issues of sexual harassment and assault. Negative results, Miller knew, could lead to additional scrutiny from higher headquarters.
Over the next few weeks, Miller began trying to identify the source of the anonymous complaint, and eventually took to intimidating Cooper, according to her statement. During a routine command inspection on Oct. 17, Miller told her, “I know that you will be in the command climate interviews, by the way, so make sure to spell my name right this time when you’re talking about me.” The remark left Cooper afraid, she recalled, though Miller later claimed it was a joke he told everyone.
(A WWR spokeswoman and Lt. Col. Larry Coleman, the unit’s current executive officer who served as Miller’s deputy, were asked whether they could corroborate Miller’s claim of a joke. They declined.)
Then on Oct. 28, Miller told Cooper he knew she had “apparently made some comments” to investigators probing separate allegations of misconduct leveled at a civilian contractor, raising concern among officials at Manpower & Reserve Affairs, the administrative hub of the Corps that oversees the regiment.
Fearing retribution from Miller, Cooper tried to downplay her remarks, her statement said. But as the conversation moved into the topic of sexual misconduct, Cooper recalled, she became uncomfortable, particularly because the memory of a past, unreported sexual assault had troubled her over the weekend.
“Sir, this is not a good time for me to talk about this,” Cooper said. “May I leave?” Miller pressed, asking what was wrong. Cooper finally relented.
“While articulating that I had been raped, Col. Miller said ‘didja get date-raped?’” Cooper wrote of what happened next, adding that she stared at the floor and did not reply. “Were you drinking?” Miller asked.
Now in tears, Cooper didn’t understand why her sobriety was important, or why it was relevant to her assault. “What do you want to do?” she recalled Miller asking.
Miller called the unit’s victim advocate into his office. “We need to report a date rape,” Miller said. The advocate, a Navy lieutenant commander, then escorted Cooper to the base’s sexual assault and prevention office. Later that afternoon, with the reporting of the assault now behind her, Cooper got a text on her cell phone. It was Miller: “Hang in there! I’ve got your back! Semper Fi. Col,” he wrote.
Miller did not deny the quotes attributed to him. Instead, he explained to the investigator that he had asked Cooper whether it was a date rape so he’d have a “better understanding” of the incident. And the question about drinking, Miller said, was asked so it could be included in an official incident report known as an OPREP-3.
But Miller’s explanation goes against Marine Corps guidelines for what commanders should do when told of a sexual assault. The Corps urges victim safety and the immediate notification of staff trained to help victims, and it cautions officers to collect only ”necessary information” such as an offender’s name or when the assault occurred. In fact, the Marine Corps order on OPREP-3 reporting instructs commanders to write only in general terms about such incidents.
“An incident of sexual assault was reported to have occurred in Barracks Q, 2400-0600,” reads an example message provided in the order, parenthetically instructing that “no details about the incident shall be provided.” And one “commander’s checklist” tells Marine officers to “not ask detailed questions and/or pressure the victim for responses or information about the incident.” (Notably, the sentence is the only one capitalized in the four-page document.)
“It takes my breath away,” said Christensen. “It’s just an insane idea a commander would think that’s the appropriate way to deal with a victim.”
‘Well, you have rapes … and then you have date rape’
Cooper was still upset when she came into work the next day, bothered not only by the memory of her rape but her commander’s mischaracterization of it, according to her statement. She wanted to explain how she felt, believing it would be best to discuss it with him directly. After all, the Marine Corps says it is “committed to ensuring victims of sexual assault are protected, treated with dignity and respect, and provided support, advocacy, and care.”
“Part of the reason I haven’t been able to cope very well with my rape is that I need to be able to articulate it to others,” Cooper wrote in her statement. When others describe what happened to me in different terms, she added, “it sends a signal that they aren’t taking it seriously or that I have no room to speak for myself.”
So on the afternoon of Oct. 29, Cooper tried to explain to her commander that “date rape” understated her assault since it implied a romantic association with her assailant, whom she did not know. Miller, however, had far different views.
“Well, you have rapes where you get beat over the head and they rip off your clothes and you’re raped against your will,” Miller said. “And then you have date rape.”
Cooper felt insulted. “It seemed as though I needed to validate my trauma for him to treat the matter seriously,” she recalled in her statement, “And I said that ‘um, for perspective, sir, I did not take off my own clothes.’”
“Okay, well, you didn’t tell me that,” Miller said, before going on to describe, “in graphic detail,” according to the investigator, a brutal rape case he had learned of while in college during the late 1980s, and another he became aware of while deployed overseas with the military.
“Let me tell you about my first experience with rape,” Miller said, according to Cooper, reflecting back on his study of criminology at Florida State University. “One of them, the rapist was a big black guy. And he had someone tied up to a bed. And he ass-raped ‘em so hard, that their ass was four times the normal size that an ass should be, I remember. They actually died from the trauma.”
“Oh wow,” Cooper said, unsure how to respond.
“Then there was the time when I was overseas. We came across these guys and they had women chained up to trees. They ass-raped them, too, because they think — you know — that vaginas are for babies, and ass is for fun,” Miller was quoted as saying. “I’ve never thought of raping anyone, though.”
Asked by the investigator why he would tell such stories to a rape victim — and in such graphic detail — Miller said they were “defining events” in his life that demonstrated why he took sexual assault so seriously. He did not dispute the quotes Cooper attributed to him.
“What I described was never intended to be demeaning or taken lightly,” Miller wrote. “It was to reinforce this is very serious to me and [I] will do everything I can to support” Cooper and other Marines, “and to assist in any and all legal actions.”
How the meeting ended remains in dispute. According to Miller, Cooper seemed fine with the stories and told him, “sir, appreciate it and understand how you could look at it. I appreciate the honesty.” But Cooper wrote of Miller’s distinction between rape and date rape: “upon hearing these words, I was stunned. I stared back in disbelief.”
And the graphic stories, according to Cooper, were an effort to trivialize her assault. “She felt that Col. Miller was taunting her and communicating that her rape was insignificant,” the investigator wrote, adding that Miller later suggested Cooper was using the assault as an excuse to break up with her boyfriend.
“Don’t push him away but trust him to be there for you,” Miller recalled telling Cooper, explaining to the investigator that his comments about her boyfriend were taken “out of context.”
When asked about his distinction between rape and date rape, Miller told the investigator that both acts are horrible but, “to the average man,” Miller wrote, “[rape] brings up the visual of violence, beating, not necessarily knowing the assailant. As for the term of ‘date rape or acquaintance rape’ you know the person in some fashion. Again didn’t matter to me as they are all horrible.”
Though he didn’t tell Cooper at the time, Miller explained later that he was thinking in legal terms, telling the investigator that “the Marine Corps treats the two differently,” citing articles of military law. “‘Rape’ is by unlawful force and can carry a life sentence,” Miller wrote. “‘Sexual assault’ (what I referred to as ‘date rape,’ which may not have been the correct way to put it) doesn’t involve unlawful force, often involves drinking, and has a lower maximum sentence.”
‘Call someone who cares’
Two days later, Cooper was back in Miller’s office alongside her victim advocate, who was required to conduct a mandatory debriefing on what had taken place since Cooper reported the assault. The Navy lieutenant commander assured an uneasy Cooper it would be fine.
But after they entered Miller’s office, there was an uncomfortable silence, according to Cooper’s written account. “I really did not want to talk about this again,” she said, hoping the meeting would be short.
“Here’s a nickel. Call someone who cares,” Miller responded, while reaching into his pocket for change.
“Thank you, sir,” Cooper said.
“You’re welcome,” Miller said. “I’m here to insult you.”
Though Miller didn’t dispute much of Cooper’s recollection of events, he flatly denied that he had insulted her during the Oct. 31 meeting. “Never happened,” he told the investigator, despite another witness being present. The Navy officer confirmed the demeaning remarks (though she remembered Miller saying quarter instead of a nickel), leading the investigator to conclude that Miller had provided a false official statement.
“Prior to this incident I felt confident that a sexual assault case would have been handled well by the CO and I reported that in the command climate survey,” the lieutenant commander wrote in her statement.
“Now I have more concerns and would not feel comfortable reporting one or advising others to do unrestricted reporting.”
‘You want to know why women get out of the Marines? It’s because of this’
About six months before Col. Miller was relieved of command, the Pentagon’s inspector general released a report on another Marine officer, Brig. Gen. Norman Cooling, who in 2018 was accused of making disparaging, inappropriate comments and creating a hostile work environment at the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs. (Disclosure: This reporter served in the Marine Corps under Cooling from 2004 to 2006.)
Cooling, an infantry officer from Baytown, Texas who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986, had “disparaged, bullied, and humiliated subordinates,” investigators wrote in a 47-page report, “devalued women, and created a negative OLA work environment that led to a general distrust of his impartiality and leadership.”
Tapped by the Marine commandant in July 2017 for the high-profile role of advocating for the Corps on Capitol Hill, Cooling had, according to investigators, “a duty to promote and safeguard workplace morale, to treat subordinates with dignity and impartiality, to be a positive influence, and to avoid bullying subordinates by verbally berating or humiliating them or spreading rumors about them that could damage their reputations.” Yet, they wrote, the general on the fast track to earning a second star had failed in this duty at least seven times.
Indeed, investigators determined that Cooling had publicly berated and singled out a female staff officer in front of peers after a member of Congress had canceled an important meeting, though at least some of the 37 witnesses interviewed felt Cooling was an “equal opportunity offender” of men and women.
Nevertheless, during a breakfast with congressional fellows, Cooling suggested to his audience of mid-level officers and senior enlisted Marines that women naturally made better office schedulers, “a comment that angered Marines in attendance,” investigators wrote, “because it suggested that scheduling or similar secretarial” work “was a ‘woman’s position.’” And during a meeting with Senate staffers, Cooling said that allowing the opening of combat roles to women had negatively impacted men because women were physically inferior.
Cooling denied ever singling anyone out for criticism unrelated to job performance.
“I inadvertently offended some through random remarks that were taken in a different context than I intended,” Cooling said in a statement after the report’s release. “Additionally, there were statements attributed to me that I unequivocally did not make or were purposefully embellished.”
Though Cooling was removed from his position on Capitol Hill, he later received “official counseling,” just as Miller had, before being named an assistant deputy commandant, a more desirable position typically reserved for major generals. Cooling retired in 2019, with Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, the commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force, giving a speech in his honor, according to LinkedIn posts from attendees. A Marine official confirmed Beaudreault was the retiring officer.
Yet Cooling was not alone among senior officers in recent years apparently judged by a different set of rules than their subordinates.
Brig. Gen. Rick Uribe, who once served as the inspector general of the Marine Corps, was similarly “administratively punished” in July 2018 for treating his female aide-de-camp as a personal servant during a deployment to Iraq. Investigators found that Uribe made his aide pick up his laundry, meals, and made her wait by gym equipment to reserve it when Uribe was called away in the middle of workouts. Uribe went on to serve as second-in-command of the I Marine Expeditionary Force before transferring to U.S. Southern Command, where he’s now in charge of the combatant command’s strategy, policy, and plans directorate.
And on it went for a string of officers in 2019 issued administrative action for a variety of alleged offenses, including unspecified off-duty incidents, drunk driving, and domestic violence — establishing an unofficial tradition of administrative action, job transfer, and keeping officers’ retirement pensions intact.
“Every day you have lance corporals, sergeants, and the occasional captain who get put in jail” for similar offenses, said Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who regularly reviewed cases of enlisted and officer misconduct for the Naval Clemency and Parole Board while on active duty. “And you would think that as you go up the chain, the punishments would become more severe because the responsibility is even greater.”
“But instead of it becoming more severe, it’s becoming nonexistent,” said Germano. (Germano was herself relieved of command in 2015 over toxic leadership concerns, though the circumstances remain controversial.)
Aside from employing a skewed punishment calculus for senior officers, the Corps has come under fire more recently for misogynist views in the ranks. Though it’s unclear how widely those views are shared among Corps leaders, there are signs they remain deeply entrenched.
Ironically, Marine Corps public affairs talking points now celebrate having female Marines “currently represented in all previously-restricted occupational fields,” and highlight recent achievements of “the first female F-35 pilot and first female Reconnaissance Marine,” despite the 2013 push to open those fields to women being bitterly opposed by many top Marine leaders at the time — including Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the commandant of the Marine Corps.
One Marine colonel, William “Bill” Mullen, privately lobbied friends to fight against lifting restrictions on allowing women in combat units. Though the ban was ultimately lifted in 2013 by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the move was spurred by a federal lawsuit charging that the restriction on women serving in certain roles amounted to discrimination.
“There is a renewed press for putting women in the infantry and it has nothing to do with military efficiency or the requirements of national security,” wrote Mullen, a highly educated infantry officer then in command of the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group, in an April 2012 email later obtained by Task & Purpose.
“Unless there is a groundswell of public indignation against this effort, it is very likely to happen within the next year,” Mullen added, sharing a link to a blog post written by a retired Marine colonel suggesting that the integration of women into ground combat roles would lead to the destruction of the Marine Corps.
“I ask that if you really care about this issue, please circulate the link below as widely as possible, but please do not associate it with me. Given my recent selection [to brigadier general],” Mullen wrote, which had not yet been confirmed by the Senate, “I do not need any extra attention at this time. Our military leaders are fighting this as best they can, but the push is coming from higher and it treats all facts contrary to their point of view as irrelevant. This is entirely political.”
Mullen went on to become a two-star general overseeing the Corps training and education efforts, including the training of women in ground combat roles. When asked about the email last month, Mullen told Task & Purpose his earlier opinion on the issue “became irrelevant” once the decision to integrate women into combat units had been made, though he didn’t disavow the email.
The Marine Corps’ institutional problem with women has been frequently documented in surveys, books, and a number of research studies, including one conducted by the Marine Corps itself after the Marines United scandal in 2017. That March, journalist Thomas Brennan, a Marine veteran, revealed the existence of a private Facebook group where some 30,000 active-duty Marines and veterans were sharing thousands of nude photographs of their female colleagues. Some even identified female Marines and shared where they worked and lived, heightening the chances of offline harassment.
“The female Marines are a small group in our Corps,” Gen. Robert Neller, then the commandant, told lawmakers at the time. “And for whatever reason, there are still some number — and I don’t think it’s separate from the sexual assault issue, but this issue of denigration of women, objectification of women, misogyny, however you want articulate it, or just bad behavior is tied to the way that some … male Marines look at women in the Marine Corps.”
Neller characterized the scandal as a “perversion to our culture” that was “not indicative of the great majority of Marines,” and nearly 100 Marines were punished for online misbehavior related to Marines United. But a forthcoming study of the issue that was overseen by Neller’s top deputy, Gen. Glenn Walters, undercut those remarks.
Despite its anodyne title — Marines’ Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture — the findings from the Corps’ study were explosive, offering more than one hundred pages of commentary from hundreds of male and female Marines of all ranks, who provided example after example showing that mistreatment of female Marines was the norm.
“I’ve always had to prove myself on how I can perform as a Marine. It gets old, though,” one female first sergeant told researchers. “And I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that…” she said, pausing for a long time. “Women can’t do the job.”
While discussing the Marines United group, a male lieutenant colonel stationed in 29 Palms characterized the scandal not as an aberration but deeply embedded in Marine culture. “This is a virtual hog board,” the lieutenant colonel said, referring to the practice of Marines posting lewd photos of ex-wives and girlfriends on a barracks bulletin board. “I don’t know why we’re surprised.”
Indeed, the existence of the Marines United group had an online predecessor the Corps had largely ignored years before. In 2014, Task & Purpose reported on multiple Facebook pages popular with Marines and veterans that commonly referred to female Marines as “wookies” or far worse; some featured racist comments and shared memes joking about rape. And Marines on active duty were not surprised that female Marines were harassed, but that the problem hadn’t been revealed sooner, according to the culture report. “I was more surprised that it took so long for something like that to get highlighted because that’s been a problem like forever,” a female sergeant told researchers during an interview in Camp Butler, Japan. In Yuma, Arizona, a female captain echoed that view.
As the authors of the culture report noted, two perceptions appeared to undergird the unequal standard that female Marines often endured: “Women are a nuisance or a danger” and “women make inadequate Marines” — the latter a view that, some argue, stems from the Corps’ continued segregation of men and women during initial training.
“You want to know why women get out of the Marines? It’s because of this kind of thing,” Germano said.
According to February briefing slides prepared for top Marine leaders, the Corps has taken a number of steps in the wake of the Marines United scandal, to include updating its policies on prohibited conduct to outlaw the sharing of intimate images, launching marketing efforts geared specifically toward women, and allowing more flexibility for parents after having children. It also rolled out body armor and helmets that are better-suited to women, something that most male Marines would never even think about, according to one Marine official.
“The commandant does care about these different topics and is looking at ways of how to address these things,” the official said. “I do get the sense that [Gen. Berger] is driving change and is actually focused on hitting a lot of these points,” though he conceded, “there are obviously some who don’t.”
Statistically, female Marines are well-aware they work in an institution largely dominated by men: Only 8% of the 257,911 active and reserve Marines are women. And while the Air Force and Army can boast that, respectively, more than 21% and 18% of its officers are women, women comprise about 8% of the Marine officer ranks, with just four women among the Corps’ 99 general officers.
“I largely believe the Marine Corps sees that there is a problem and has some sort of desire to make sure that bad behavior doesn’t happen,” said Emma Moore, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan think tank that provides analysis to policymakers. “And yet, there is such an instilled negative attitude toward women on a whole that without fundamentally changing that perspective, how are they going to comprehensively address these issues?”
Still, despite their small numbers, many female Marines have been able to excel in an environment a 2018 Pentagon study rated as having “significantly higher” levels of hostility toward women. Between 2009 and 2012, for example, small groups of “female engagement teams” worked alongside Marine infantrymen in Afghanistan and were widely praised for their ability to collect intelligence and speak directly with women — doing a job their male colleagues were barred from doing due to Afghan cultural taboos.
“Marines are geared toward action and our response to improving our culture is no different,” said Capt. Joe Butterfield, a Marine spokesman. “While we do not have all the answers, we do know the end state: continue to take steps that foster a culture of dignity, respect, and trust for all.”
Nearly 300 women have completed training to earn military job specialties that were previously unattainable, including 62 combat engineers, 31 infantry riflemen, and 28 artillery cannoneers, according to Corps statistics. One of them, Lance Cpl. Alexa Barth, became the first female Marine to finish the Corps’ basic reconnaissance course in Nov. 2019, a grueling training regimen that some 60% of Marines fail.
And yet, as if to highlight the toxic culture of harassment that female Marines continue to face, many questioned whether Barth’s training was altered to help her pass (A Marine official familiar with Barth’s accomplishment told Task & Purpose the training remained the same).
“Read any article about women Marines and the comments are pretty horrific,” Christensen said.
Losing two officers instead of one
When the report into Col. Miller was finalized and sent to Maj. Gen. Edward Banta on Jan. 16, 2020, the commander of Marine Corps Installations Command finally knew what had happened roughly 40 minutes south of his Pentagon office.
Noting his bottom line up front, the investigator concluded that there was not a toxic command environment at Wounded Warrior Regiment; climate problems at the unit apparently ended with Miller’s ouster. Yet Miller’s “comments and actions,” the investigator wrote, “did constitute a violation of the Marine Corps Prohibited Activities and Conduct Prevention and Response Policy and chargeable offenses under the UCMJ,” using an abbreviation for the uniform code of military justice. “Specifically, that Col. Miller’s comments and actions constitute harassment and sexual harassment.”
Though Banta, who also serves as an assistant deputy commandant, was not required to follow the recommendations, the investigator suggested the general “take appropriate administrative and disciplinary action,” mentioning two articles of military law that were allegedly violated: conduct unbecoming an officer and making a false official statement.
Notably, Banta wrote in his official endorsement of the investigation on Jan. 31 that he approved of the report’s findings of fact, opinions, and recommendations. But above his signature on the letter, bearing the seal of the Department of Defense and to its right in capital letters, United States Marine Corps, Banta wrote that “appropriate administrative action” would be taken. “Disciplinary action” went unmentioned.
“Commanders have a variety of tools available to address performance and misconduct issues,” said Butterfield, the Marine spokesman. “A formal counseling … is one such tool.”
“It’s disappointing for sure, and that’s putting mildly,” a second Marine official told Task & Purpose when asked about Miller’s written counseling. After pausing briefly, the official was more blunt: “Particularly for a colonel who is at his terminal rank, that is jack shit.”
Banta declined to justify the administrative action to Task & Purpose. Instead, his spokesman Capt. Jose Romero said “a statement about the investigation would not be appropriate at this time” since the case is “still open pending final administrative actions,” despite Miller having an approved retirement date of May 31, according to two Marine officials.
After Task & Purpose pointed out that a Marine cannot separate from the service while on legal or administrative hold, and asked for examples of supposed “final administrative actions” still pending for Miller, Romero provided a statement four days later that was far more confusing than clarifying.
“Per MCO 5800.16-V15, only the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV); the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs (ASN, M&RA), or the Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs (DC, M&RA), may close a case if an officer is determined to have committed misconduct. Colonel Miller’s case is currently being routed through his chain of command for final action by DC, M&RA,” Romero said.
“Also per MCO 5800.16-V15, when an officer is on personnel hold awaiting closure of a pending case, administrative personnel actions, like separation or retirement, are placed on hold. However, there are certain statutorily required separations or retirements (e.g., maximum age or service limitations) where an officer cannot be administratively held past those dates unless for very limited reasons (e.g., serious medical issues or court-martial). Due to privacy protections on administrative records, we cannot comment on Col Miller’s retirement plans.”
Cooper, a promising officer who outshined most of her colleagues, according to a May 2019 performance evaluation included in the investigation, decided to leave the Corps soon after learning of Banta’s decision not to punish Miller. She recently submitted her resignation, according to two Marine officials familiar with the matter.
‘Obligation to the officer corps as a whole’
In the 2017 edition of “The Armed Forces Officer,” a guidebook for military officers produced by the Pentagon since 1950, the authors make note of the “otherness” of military officers as a body apart from their enlisted subordinates. The Marine Corps is, they wrote, the “most eloquent” among the services in defining this ideal in its Marine Corps Manual, highlighting the “special trust and confidence” bestowed upon officers with their commission.
“It is the policy of the Marine Corps that this privilege be tangible and real,” the manual reads. “It is the corresponding obligation of the officer corps that it be wholly deserved.”
As an accompanying condition, the manual reads (emphasis added), “commanders will impress upon all subordinate officers the fact that the presumption of integrity, good manners, sound judgment, and discretion, which is the basis for the special trust and confidence reposed in each officer, is jeopardized by the slightest transgression on the part of any member of the officer corps.
“Any offense, however minor, will be dealt with promptly, and with sufficient severity to impress on the officer at fault, and on the officer corps. Dedication to the basic elements of special trust and confidence is a Marine officer’s obligation to the officer corps as a whole, and transcends the bonds of personal friendship.”
To be sure, the Corps did send a message to its officer corps when it banished Miller from leading his regiment. Marine officers around the service likely took note of the firing and reflected on their careers, pondering how they could avoid Miller’s fate.
But the foundation of discipline is to hold people of higher rank to higher standards, according to Christensen, who questioned whether an officer losing their job and being reassigned until retiring with full benefits qualified as accountability.
“Instead they hold junior officers and enlisted to a higher standard. It sends the wrong message,” Christensen said.
“If you think being moved from one position to another is accountability,” he added. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve lost sight of what real accountability is. For young guys and gals to go to court-martial and go to jail and get a bad conduct discharge, that’s real accountability.”
Indeed, the supposed deterrent effect from officer relief has its limits. Asked whether he would proudly serve with Miller again, Lt. Col. Larry Coleman, the executive officer of Wounded Warrior Regiment, was unequivocal: “Yes,” he told Task & Purpose.
He declined to answer further questions