The scandal involving the use of prostitutes by Secret Service and US military personnel widened this week with the news that three Marines were caught last year in Brazil in a similar – though more hushed – scandal.
The three Marines in the Brazil incident were demoted one rank each, though under the rules of military justice they could also have faced one year of confinement. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters traveling with him in South America that the liaisons in Colombia this month are being thoroughly investigated and, if the facts bear it out, could result in charges.
Both sets of allegations are an embarrassment to the military and highlight why paying for sex is forbidden under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), even in countries – such as Colombia and Brazil – where prostitution is legal.
A dozen US service members are currently under investigation by US Southern Command for the Colombia prostitution scandal. The office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also dispatched Vice Adm. William Gortney – who most recently grappled with Somali pirates as commander of the US Navy’s Fifth fleet – to meet with Senate and House Armed Services Committee members in closed-door briefings.
In the incident brought to light during Secretary Panetta’s travels in Brazil, a prostitute was pushed out of a car after getting into an altercation with Marines regarding her payment due.
The American embassy stepped in to reimburse her for medical expenses she incurred when she tried to crawl back into the moving vehicle.
The UMCJ makes it clear that paying for sex is conduct unbecoming an officer. For soldiers, patronizing prostitutes is also considered conduct "prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
Some military officials say that many soldiers are not aware that prostitution is illegal under military law in countries where prostitution itself is permitted. “They should think about publicizing that more widely,” said one officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
When the plans to add prostitution charges for the UCMJ were initially floated in 2004, many US troops reacted bitterly, calling such sanctions “harsh” in an interview the same year with the military publication, Stars and Stripes. “Next they’re going to tell us we can’t drink or only on the weekends,” one sergeant stationed in Germany, where prostitution is legal, told the newspaper.
As much as the scandals are a blemish on the military, the greater concern is that the scandal has detracted from US policy, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters.
“We are embarrassed,” he said, referring to the Colombia reports. “Though we’re not exactly sure what it is, but what we do know is that we distracted ... [from] what was a very important regional engagement for our president,” he added. “We let the boss down.”