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Hooking up, via Craigslist, in Afghanistan

Undercover agents crack down on solicitations and prostitution in the war zone

Jul. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Marines use an Internet and phone center at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. Service members who post sexual solicitation ads on Craigslist Baghdad are being punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (Lance Cpl. Daniel A. Flynn / Marine Corps)
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Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Afghanistan are tracking service members who are hooking up in the war zone via Internet sites such as Craigslist and busting those who violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

And in Afghanistan, where commanders have forbidden any sexual encounters between unwed people, virtually anyone who tries to set up a meeting online can become a target of investigators.

One Marine lance corporal found that out in 2012, after he posted an advertisement on Craigslist for a sexual rendezvous. The guy he met at Camp Leatherneck, whom he thought was also looking to hook up, turned out to be an undercover agent with the NCIS.

Sexual activities in a war zone are as old as wars themselves, but with the advent of Internet personal ads and social media sites, arranging a sexual encounter can become brazen, public and risky. Warnings from commanders, standard guidance for any unit headed to the war zone, appear to have fallen on deaf ears in many cases.

Hundreds of officers and enlisted troops, Defense Department personnel and civilian contractors have posted explicit personal ads on the “Casual Encounters” page at Craigslist Baghdad, looking for discreet sexual encounters.

The Craigslist site is presumably a leftover from the U.S. war in Iraq. The majority of the posters are now deployed at bases across Afghanistan: Kandahar Airfield; Camp Leatherneck/Bastion; Bagram; and Forward Operating Bases Ghazni and Salerno, to name just a few. The ads are often accompanied by nude pictures and graphic language.

A male service member on Camp Bastion posted an ad June 30, looking for a woman to keep him company.

“I am married and looking for some companionship while here,” he wrote. “I am 27, good looking, and I have pictures to exchange when we chat.” It was accompanied by a photo of his genitalia.

A post by a “regular hot military guy” in Kandahar on May 28 appeared to offer payment for anyone who would meet up with him. “I’m happy to discuss a reward on a regular basis,” he wrote.

Most of the posts are men looking for men, followed by men looking for women. There are occasionally couples looking for women. However, women post far less often on the site. In one strange twist, a stateside woman advertised that she wanted her husband to experiment with bisexuality while deployed to Afghanistan. She offered to set up the meet and asked that anyone interested send her details afterward.

Good order and discipline

Online sex solicitation is technically not a crime under the UCMJ. However, commanders have the right to enact regulations that make it a punishable offense.

“Soliciting for sex on community-oriented websites such as Craigslist is not per se a chargeable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” wrote Erin Stattel, a press officer for International Security Assistance Force headquarters, in response to emailed questions from Marine Corps Times. “However, posting pornographic images on a public web or social media site is a chargeable offense. Excerpt: General Order 1.15.f states ‘creation or display of any pornographic or sexually explicit photograph ... is prohibited.’”

Other chargeable offenses under the UCMJ include adultery, prostitution and pandering, which violate General Article 134. But commanders downrange are also prosecuting service members, on a case-by-case basis, under a different section of General Article 134 that bans conduct “to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces.”

NCIS agents were enforcing all these prohibitions when they came across the Craigslist ad from the lance corporal, who had deployed to Afghanistan from Okinawa in 2012. He spoke with Marine Corps Times on the condition that he not be named.

“I made the post on Craigslist, and an undercover member of NCIS responded to it,” he said. “He refused to send a picture, saying he wanted to be discreet. But he sent me a place and time to meet him.

“Once we met, we started walking toward a Logistics Support Area,” he continued. “As we were approaching a vehicle, a bunch of people got out, surrounded us, drew pistols and told me to get on the ground. I was arrested and taken to the [Provost Marshal’s Office].”

He was quickly prosecuted. The command slapped him with three charges: attempting to commit an offense in violation of the UCMJ; failing to obey an order or regulation, and pandering and prostitution.

The lance corporal noted that he didn’t post a photo of himself with the ad and insists that he had no intention of participating in a sexual act in which money or other reward would have been exchanged, but he decided not to fight the charges and accepted nonjudicial punishment. He was reduced in rank to a private first class, forfeited $1,670 in pay over two months and received 45 days of extra duties and 45 days of restriction.

Looking back on the case now, the lance corporal believes he could have fought the prostitution and pandering charge, “but it’s a little late for that,” he said.

Sexual solicitation is fairly common in combat theaters, the lance corporal said, and it’s not limited to young enlisted service members. Officers also get involved, in all branches of the military.

“It could be anyone, from military to civilian,” he said.

Risky business

Retired Col. Dr. Elspeth Cameron “Cam” Ritchie, a longtime Army psychiatrist and now chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia’s Department of Mental Health in Washington, said the military has a long history of sex solicitation, so it’s no surprise that today’s military members use the Internet and social media sites toward that purpose.

While arranging hookups online and, in some cases, attaching identifying information, carries risk, service members in combat zones are more prone to taking risks.

“When detached from home, without the ability to openly exercise relationships in a combat environment and with a fatalistic attitude, military members would be inclined to embrace risk-taking,” she said. “These young men have high testosterone and, with the inability to quietly have a relationship, it is not surprising that they are willing to put themselves into that situation.”

Although the Defense Department blocks pornographic sites, and personal ads are known for sexual solicitation, prostitution and scams, the site itself is not banned.

“At this time, Craigslist is not restricted to troops in theater; however, the personal dating sections are blocked on unclassified, military-networked computers,” said Stattel.

Service members downrange have access to Internet centers in which the computers are not connected to the military network.

Captain Eric Flanagan, a public affairs officer for Marine Corps headquarters noted that DoD does not want to prohibit service members from using Craigslist’s practical applications such as housing and other services.

“If they are victims of online scams, they can work with NCIS or the Judge Advocate to take care of them. If they are willfully committing a crime, however, then they are susceptible to punishment according to the articles of UCMJ.”

Representatives of Craigslist did not immediately respond to questions about the use of their site by military members.

Undercover work continues

When asked if he thought the measures taken by NCIS were appropriate, the lance corporal was fairly understanding.

“It was against the rules set forth by the base general, ... so they were doing their job,” he said. “But what I don’t agree with is how they were pretty much searching for people to arrest.

“I did hear that members of NCIS were making posts themselves and arresting people who responded,” he added.

When asked if NCIS was posting ads to arrest potential offenders, Ed Buice, a spokesman for the agency, said the support NCIS offers to the Navy and Marine Corps cannot be divulged in great detail to maintain the effectiveness of the programs.

“NCIS is currently engaged in ongoing undercover operations involving social networks and to comment in any detail could potentially compromise those investigations.” Buice said.

After doing a bit of research, Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman, said she could find only one prosecution of sex solicitation within 2012-13 time frame.

Chris Grey, director of public affairs at Army Criminal Investigation Command, said the agency currently has no active investigations related to sexual solicitation in the war zone. “We do constantly monitor multiple media platforms and pursue those who violate the law,” he said.

The Marine Corps plans to continue to rely on punitive measures in an effort to prevent sexual solicitation.

“Depending on the nature of the communication, a Marine could be subject to punishment under the UCMJ, including punitive discharge and/or confinement, among other adverse administrative action,” Flanagan said.

He emphasized that the Marine Corps and NCIS have taken steps to inform Marines about the negative consequences of online sex solicitation: “Marines are given training on their behavior online and on social media sites,” he said. “The key takeaway is that behavior online is the same as behavior on base or off base.”

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