Marine 1-Star Demeaned Women and Berated Staff, Investigation Finds

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U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. (select) Col. Norm L. Cooling welcomes guests during the 239th Marine Corps Birthday on Panzer Kaserne in Boeblingen, Germany, on Nov. 7, 2014. (U.S. Army/Visual Information Specialist Jason Johnston)
U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. (select) Col. Norm L. Cooling welcomes guests during the 239th Marine Corps Birthday on Panzer Kaserne in Boeblingen, Germany, on Nov. 7, 2014. (U.S. Army/Visual Information Specialist Jason Johnston)

The one-star general who served as the Marine commandant's top legislative assistant humiliated his staff, said opening the infantry to women would harm men, and told congressional fellows that female troops made better secretaries than their male colleagues, a Defense Department investigation found.

Brig. Gen. Norman Cooling, who became Commandant Gen. Robert Neller's legislative assistant in July 2017, devalued women, bullied and humiliated his subordinates, and created a negative work environment that led to distrust, according to a 47-page investigation into his behavior released Wednesday.

Cooling, who could not immediately be reached for comment, also violated Defense Department and Navy regulations on harassment prevention and abuse of authority, the Pentagon inspector general's office found.

Neller suspended Cooling from his job in February 2018 after then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis received a complaint from the Senate Armed Services Committee. The complaint alleged multiple sources reported Cooling making disparaging comments about women.

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The investigation also uncovered claims that he created a toxic and hostile work environment.

The Marine Corps takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, regardless of rank, said Maj. Brian Block, a spokesman at the Pentagon.

"The Marine Corps is currently reviewing the DoD IG's report and will take appropriate action in light of the substantiated misconduct," Block said. "The Marine Corps expects every Marine, uniformed and civilian -- and particularly those in leadership positions -- to hold themselves to the highest standards in their personal and professional conduct."

Since his suspension, Cooling has been serving as assistant deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps. In the high-profile position, he assists Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault in planning and executing policies relating to the structure and deployment of the entire force.

Investigators recommended Neller "take appropriate action with regard to BGen Cooling in light of the substantiated misconduct described in our report."

When Neller suspended Cooling from his job as legislative assistant, the commandant said he was committed to ensuring "every Marine has the opportunity to serve at their full potential, unimpeded by discrimination, bias or hostile working conditions."

When Marines fall short of meeting those standards, Block added this week, they are held accountable.

In similar cases, Marines have been formally reprimanded for abusing their staff or removed from leadership positions for making derogatory comments about women.

'A Turd in the Punch Bowl'

The Senate Armed Services Committee complaint detailed six instances of alleged disparaging or inappropriate treatment from Cooling, a career infantry officer and Naval Academy graduate.

During the course of the IG's investigation, witnesses described four more examples.

One of the first complaints took place about five months after Neller testified before Congress following the March 2017 Marines United scandal, in which more than 50,000 social media users shared nude photos of female troops without permission. More than 100 troops faced courts-martial or administrative punishment for participating, and Neller called the problem "a perversion in our culture."

Witnesses told investigators that Cooling disputed Neller's claim while hosting a breakfast for congressional fellows.

"I keep telling CMC to stop saying this," one witness recalled Cooling saying. "Our culture is fine."

Another witness said Cooling called Neller "totally wrong." Troops serving as congressional fellows, who work with members of Congress for about a year on Capitol Hill, said they were concerned about getting mixed messages from Marine leaders. They weren't sure what position to take back to their assigned members of Congress, the report states.

Cooling told the investigators that, since he didn't violate a specific standard when he made the comments, the analysis should be removed from the final report. They disagreed.

About six weeks later, Cooling was found to have told Senate staff members that opening combat roles to women impacted the men because "women were physically inferior" forcing male troops to "pick up the slack."

Men were also having "a difficult time adjusting to open combat roles because they can no longer refer to certain rifle parts as female body parts," witnesses recounted him as saying.

While a Senate staffer who was at the meeting declined to cooperate with the investigation, two witnesses corroborated the story, the report states.

"When BGen Cooling told the Senate staff member in the presence of two [Office of Legislative Affairs] subordinates that opening combat roles to women impacted men negatively because women were physically inferior to men, and made the comment about rifle parts and female body parts, BGen Cooling created a negative work environment by disparaging and devaluing women," investigators wrote.

In another breakfast with congressional fellows that December, Cooling said he believed women "make naturally better schedulers or secretaries," the report states. The general told investigators he meant the remark as a compliment.

"I did not say or infer that women could not do something well or that they could not do other things equally well," Cooling said, adding that he holds the positions of congressional schedulers and Marine Corps executive assistants and staff secretaries in high regard.

"I now clearly recognize that this may be a generational communication issue and/or one that is perceived by some in a political context," he added.

Investigators substantiated that claim as another example of Cooling devaluing women.

That same month, Cooling's deputy was speaking with a noncommissioned officer who wanted to become a Marine pilot. Cooling, who overheard the conversation, told the woman he'd rather "his daughter work in a brothel than be a female Marine pilot," according to the investigation.

Cooling's deputy told the NCO the next day that the general's comment was inappropriate and that it had been addressed.

"Here's a young impressionable kid," the deputy told investigators. "She and I are having a great conversation about the opportunities that exist for her in the Marine Corps ... and it ends with a turd in the punch bowl."

Cooling told investigators he wouldn't have told the joke again, according to the report.

"I'm an infantryman ... ground combat guy just poking fun at our pilots," he said. "I love pilots, and they know it."

He then went on to tell investigators the woman could not have found his remark demeaning because she was not offended, bullied or humiliated by it, the report states.

"We disagree," the investigators wrote.

'An Equal Opportunity Offender'

Women weren't the only Marines on the receiving end of Cooling's demeaning comments, the investigation found.

The month before he was suspended, witnesses said they heard the general yell down the hall that he was going to castrate a Marine if he found out he'd been withholding budget information from him.

While the general officer told investigators he didn't recall making the comment, they stood by their findings.

"When BGen Cooling threatened to castrate a subordinate, he created a negative work environment by failing to show dignity and respect for his subordinate to whom he directed the comment as well as those who heard it," they wrote.

He was also found to have called another staff member a "bad officer" when she failed to secure a visit between the assistant commandant and a congresswoman. Cooling, witnesses told investigators, threatened he'd "jump out of the f---ing window" if other personnel performed that poorly.

The officer's failure to set up the meeting was a mistake, Cooling told investigators, though he denied raising his voice or saying he'd jump out the window.

"It doesn't take much for people to interpret what you're doing as being yelled at or screamed at when you're at this grade," Cooling said in the report. "And I understand that; I'm an emphatic person but, to me, yelling or screaming means raising your voice, and I don't -- I don't remember raising my voice."

Investigators found that Cooling's staff considered him "an equal opportunity offender who demeaned, bullied and humiliated male and female subordinates," they wrote.

One witness said Cooling's leadership was ineffective. He wasn't a motivator, rather "just killing the weakest in the herd," they said.

"I never saw any unfairness or unequal treatment," the witness added. "I thought he treated everybody [all genders] in different ways but just as bad."

But Cooling had a responsibility of treating subordinates with dignity and being a positive influence, investigators wrote. Instead, he humiliated them or spread rumors that could damage reputations.

"We determined that BGen Cooling conducted himself in a less than exemplary manner in his treatment of subordinates or in comments that devalued women on seven occasions during his [seven] month and 17 day tenure at OLA," the investigators wrote.

Cooling is one of at least eight officers investigated over allegations of improper behavior toward women. Former Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters said two leaders were fired in 2017 and five more in 2018 over "how they treat people of different genders."

Walters led a task force to try to identify and stamp out the problem across the ranks. Block said the work still continues under the Marine Corps' Talent Management Oversight Directorate.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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