A glaring spotlight will be turned on one of the darkest corners of military life this weekend when a gut-wrenching documentary on rape and sexual assault among the troops premieres in Washington.
The Invisible War by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering tells deeply personal stories of victims to flesh out the grim statistics: One in five women in the U.S. military are sexually assaulted at some point in their careers, an estimated 19,000 violent sex crimes occurred in the armed forces in 2010 alone, and a female service member today has a greater chance of being raped than being killed by enemy fire.
Overall, as many as a half-million personnel, mostly women, have been raped or sexually assaulted in the military since World War II, the documentary reports, with the numbers rising in recent decades as more and more women have signed up to serve their country.
Most appalling of all, the vast majority of cases are swept under the rug, and too often the victims themselves are prosecuted, sometimes forced out of the service with no chance of getting Veterans Affairs help for their physical and psychological wounds.
“This is really a systemic problem,” said Dick, explaining that the military-justice system makes commanding officers both investigators and judges in sexual-assault cases, and few of them want their units to report a confirmed incident to higher-ups.
“We want the audience to focus on the top dogs who can change the system,” Dick said. “It really has to be moved out of the chain of command.”
Dick, who wrote and directed the film, and Ziering, the producer, have collaborated on a number of documentaries, including Outrage, which exposed hypocrisy among gay public officials who remain in the closet.
The duo was inspired to make Invisible War after reading a 2007 story in Salon by Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict, “The Private War of Women Soldiers.” The story described the horrors experienced by U.S. military women who served in Iraq—not from combat but from assaults by their male comrades in arms.
“We were astounded we hadn’t heard about all this,” Dick said. “I was very surprised there wasn’t a film,” other than the 1999 movie The General’s Daughter, in which a murder investigation at an Army fort uncovers widespread cases of sexual abuse.
Dick and Ziering set about trying to find victims of assault in the military, using Facebook and other social media, contacting attorneys and veterans’ groups, and searching for reports in the media. They ended up finding more than 150 women who had been raped or assaulted, along with a few men who had been victims, and did extensive interviews with about half who agreed to tell their stories.
Former Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca describes how she was raped in 2005 by a commanding officer who also broke her jaw, and she was told that if she pressed charges, she would be court-martialed for lying. Cioca is still battling the VA to cover her treatment for stress disorder and pay for surgery to repair nerve damage in her face.
Trina McDonald tells about being drugged and raped repeatedly by military police at a naval station in Alaska; Air Force crew chief Jessica Hinves reported that she had been raped and was discharged while her assailant was awarded “Airman of the Year.”
Some of the most disturbing stories come from Marine Barracks Washington, one of the most prestigious assignments in the military. A public-affairs officer, Lt. Elle Helmer, describes how she was raped after a night of mandatory drinking at the base, and investigators lost her rape kit during a slipshod investigation.
Surprisingly, most of the victims speak highly of the military during the film, many wishing they could have continued their careers. Their anger is reserved for predators, who usually pay no price for their crimes.
Seven Pentagon officials agreed to go on camera for the documentary, and most expressed a strong desire for change. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched the film while flying from California to Washington in April, and two days later he ordered commanders to report all sexual-assault cases to a higher-ranking officer.
“I do think they really want to do something,” Ziering said. “When we would talk to people inside the military, they had to be cautious about what they said, but at the end they would say, ‘Go get ’em.’ ”
The film premieres in Washington on Friday at the Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW.
This article appears in the June 21, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.