A recently released Pentagon report alleges that the former general in charge of legislative affairs for the Marine Corps “disparaged, bullied, and humiliated subordinates, devalued women” and created a negative work environment during his seven and a half months in the job.
Brig. Gen. Norm Cooling was fired from his job as legislative assistant to the commandant in February 2018 and did not receive a previously recommended promotion to major general. He now serves as assistant deputy commandant, plans, policies and operations.
The Department of Defense Inspector General found that Cooling had, “created a hostile work environment through disparaging treatment of personnel that led to a ‘general distrust’ of his impartiality toward women and his overall leadership.”
Cooling disputed nearly every aspect of the report’s allegations against him and provided a statement to Marine Corps Times Thursday.
“At no time during my seven months in the Office of Legislative Affairs, nor at any other time during my 33-year career, have I ever negatively singled out anyone for anything other than their job performance,” Cooling wrote in an email. “I inadvertently offended some through random remarks that were taken in a different context than I intended. Additionally, there were statements attributed to me that I unequivocally did not make or were purposefully embellished.”
Cooling is a 1986 Naval Academy graduate who spent most of his career in ground combat billets and later in U.S. European Command before taking on the legislative assistant position from July 2017 to February 2018.
The report was released publicly this week. Investigators recommended the Marine Corps take appropriate action based on their findings.
Headquarters Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Brian Block told Marine Corps Times that the Corps “takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, regardless of rank.”
Block wrote in an email response that the Corps is “currently reviewing the DoD IG’s report and will take appropriate action in light of the substantiated misconduct.”
The alleged comments and conduct that led to his initial firing included:
• Telling a Marine subordinate he would “castrate” him if he had withheld information.
• Saying that women in combat roles were hurting male Marines who had to take up slack and could no longer refer to rifle parts with female genitalia references.
• Saying women made better schedulers or secretaries.
• Saying that women had less propensity to serve in the infantry.
• Asking staffers if they were “trying to f**k him” by giving him information late.
• Saying he would “jump out the f**king window” if any staff performed like a specific female officer.
• Saying he would rather his daughter work in a brothel than be a Marine Corps pilot.
• Telling the senior Marine Corps Public Affairs commander to “watch out” for a female Marine he believed caused him to be fired from his legislative post.
Investigators with the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office interviewed 37 witnesses, many of whom confirmed and added to allegations made by a Senate Armed Services Committee complaint made to the inspector in February 2018.
But others disagreed with how Cooling was characterized and what others alleged that Cooling said at various instances.
Nearly two dozen witnesses who interacted with Cooling had various responses to the work environment he fostered.
A few said that he “was respectful toward everybody” while some called him an “equal opportunity offender.”
Others accused him of single-minded careerism.
“He was purely self-motivated for promotion for himself and he would say or do anything, and demand anything of his staff that would facilitate that,” one witness told investigators.
And others had glowing comments for the workplace and how they were treated.
“I feel like he always treated me as a Marine first, like professionally and we developed trust because I was good at my job,” another witness said.
Some of the alleged — and disputed — behavior included allegations of him yelling down the office hallway that he would “castrate” a Marine staffer if that person had been withholding information from him. The staffer saw the remark as “inappropriate,” “immature” and “disrespectful,” but did not consider it a threat.
“I have no recollection of saying anything to that nature. I mean, I might kid somebody but not with castration per se,” Cooling said in the report.
In September 2017, report authors allege Cooling asked two of his staff if they are “trying to f**k” him by giving him information late when they delivered a list of 2019 congressional fellows that did not have more ground combat Marines than the previous year’s list.
Cooling said his typical profanity was the words “hell,” “damn” or “bullsh*t” but he couldn’t deny whether he use the F-word.
In October 2017, Cooling allegedly told a Senate staff member that opening combat roles to women had adversely affected male Marines. In the report witnesses said he that because women were physically inferior to men that male Marines had to “pick up the slack” during training and “men have had a difficult time adjusting to open combat roles because they can no longer refer to certain rifle parts as female body parts.”
But Cooling responded in the report by saying he “did not say those things at all,” saying the first example is not factually correct and body parts comment elicited an even stronger response.
“Well, one that’s a ludicrous statement,” Cooling said. “Two, I don’t recall having any conversation [like that] at all with anybody on the Senate staff.”
At a December 2017 congressional fellows breakfast during a question and answer session witnesses allege he made the remark that women make better schedulers and secretaries.
The one-star denied using the word secretary but did admit to saying that in his experience women make better schedulers. But he added that he saw that as a compliment noting the importance of that job among congressional staffers.
Some in the breakfast took offense to the comment seeing it as demeaning to women and brushing off the position as “menial.”
Later in December, witnesses later told investigators that Cooling told a female noncommissioned officer in passing that he would rather see his daughter work in a brothel than be a Marine Corps pilot.
The episode was in the legislative office late at night and Cooling’s deputy was speaking with the female NCO about her career plans when she finished officer candidate school. The female NCO said she wanted to be a pilot.
Cooling, a career infantryman, said he was telling a version of a joke often shared between ground combat and aviation Marines.
“The joke goes, ‘I would rather have a daughter in a brothel than a son that’s a pilot,’” he said. “That has nothing to do with gender discrimination or bias. It has everything to do with a good natured tease towards pilots and aspiring pilots.”
He did agree that the joke was in poor taste but didn’t meet the standard of bullying or creating a hostile work environment.
Cooling took the job in July 2017, and by August witnesses later said he had made comments at a congressional fellows breakfast that the Marine Corps didn’t have a “culture problem” following the Marines United scandal, contradicting what Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller had testified to Congress months before.
The Marines United scandal resulted from a Facebook user group with more than 50,000 members who shared a database of nude photos of women, including female Marines, that had disparaging comments about the women in the photos.
Subsequent investigations led to prosecutions, courts-martial and administrative actions for more than 100 personnel, according to the report.
But, Cooling said in his rebuttal to the initial investigation that he told fellows and staffers that he and other general grade officers had advised the commandant not to say that the entire Corps had a culture problem but that it was a result of a handful of Marines and Marine veterans who were causing problems.
“Now, and I also added very specifically that that doesn’t mean that we don’t have cultural issues that we have to work on, changing laws and regulations and societal norms all require us to change certain aspects of our culture,” Cooling told the IG. “That’s different than saying our culture is broken.”
Also, at the August 2017 breakfast, some attendees said that he also made comments about the “propensity of women” Marines to serve in infantry or combat roles.
Some female Marines in the meeting took “propensity” as a “catch phrase” used as a rationale for why women should not be allowed in the infantry, according to the report.
But, Cooling argued in his defense, that “propensity” was a term used within Marine Corps recruiting to note the lack of interest or desire that female Marines had in serving in those jobs.
The inspectors somewhat relented on that count, noting that the comment did not violate applicable standards.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.