New Film Focuses on Combating Military Sexual Trauma
by Diane Lefer
After The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the US military, screened Thursday evening, a woman stood up from the audience to say she had just celebrated her 80th birthday and that, as a young woman, she’d been raped by a stranger. She wanted everyone to know that today she’s a happy person. Yes, she said to loud applause, “it is possible to heal.”
Healing, being able to move forward with their own lives, is surely what everyone wishes for survivors of sexual violence. But as documentary producer Amy Ziering suggested to the audience during the post-film discussion, in the military, it’s a lot harder to recover if you are far from home, have no support, are called a liar and threatened with retaliation or even death if you tell, and surely worst of all, have to report to your job the next day to the very person who raped you.
Kori Cioca was stalked and harassed by her commanding officer in the Coast Guard for weeks before he attacked her. He’d call her at 3:00 AM. She’d come in from training and find him waiting in her bed. Then, in 2005, he smashed her jaw during the violent rape. By the time The Invisible War screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year and won the Audience Award, Cioca was still in pain, still unable to eat anything but soft food, and had still not been able to get the VA to approve the jaw surgery she needed. An audience member stepped forward and footed the bill for her at last.
Hers is only one of many stories. The Department of Defense itself estimates that in 2011 there were 19,000 violent sex crimes in which a military service member was assaulted by other military personnel.
The Invisible War brings us close into the lives of survivors, letting us see not only the long lasting damage of Military Sexual Assault (MST) but the toll on families struggling through recovery along with them as they deal with suicide attempts, physical and psychological consequences.
Over the years, I have known several women vets from around the country who were raped while serving. What I didn’t know till I watched The Invisible War was how widespread the crime has become and how the system of military justice in its very structure fails to address it. I learned a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. And that almost half of the survivors of military rape are men.
Men tend to be even less willing than women to speak openly about what they endured. But Ziering and director Kirby Dick were able to include brief interviews with several male survivors, including Amando Javier for whom the seven Marines who gang raped him still “live in my head.” Michael Matthews kept silent for 30 years after he was knocked to the ground en route to the mess hall and then raped by two fellow soldiers. He struggled alone with the demons born of his trauma, fearing his wife would leave him if she knew. When he told his story at last to her and the filmmakers, his wife put her arms around him and, he says now, “this great weight had been lifted off me.”
These male-on-male assaults are not about sexual orientation. The perpetrators aren’t gay. The men aren’t targeted as gay. It’s about dominance, about predators going after targets they believe they can prey upon.
The majority of men in the military are not predators. But a recent US Navy survey which assured anonymity found that 15% of incoming recruits reported committing rape or attempted rape in civilian life — a frightening statistic especially if Russell Strand, Chief of the US Army Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, is right when he states that the average sex offender is a repeat offender with about 300 victims.
And the military is “a target-rich environment for a predator,” according to Brigadier General (Ret.) Loree Sutton, M.D., who served as the highest ranking psychiatrist in the US Army. New recruits must obey the orders of commanding officers, the only people to whom an assault can be reported are often themselves perpetrators or close friends of the perpetrators. How do you think Jessica Hinves felt when she reported she’d been raped and her accused assailant was named Airman of the Year while the investigation was ongoing? Taliban-worthy logic often prevails as women including Andrea Werner and Elle Helman were charged with adultery when they reported being raped.
Myla Haider had doubts about the effectiveness of military justice when she served as a Special Agent in the Army Criminal Investigation Command. In investigating a rape complaint, instead of treating the men as suspects, she was ordered to interrogate the women, seeking to prove they were making false statements. Then she herself was raped by a serial rapist. When she reported it, Haider was administratively discharged without benefits after 9-1/2 years of service.
In their interviews on-screen, the survivors talk about their love for the military, their pride in serving, but when asked if they would want a daughter to serve, the answer was No.
Several years ago, I met a bright, self-possessed, and self-confident high school senior who intended to join up after graduation. Admittedly, I didn’t want to see any young person enlist and go to war, but this was a young woman and I knew the additional risk. I gave her scholarship and loan information and warned her about sexual assault. She remained determined to pursue a military career but I was relieved she decided to go to college first and enter the military service with officer rank. I hoped this would, at least, make her less vulnerable.
But at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington (which handles security for the White House) both Ariana Klay — back from service in Iraq — and Elle Helmer had the rank of lieutenant, and this did not protect them from being harassed and later raped by superior officers. The culture of the unit was one of partying, drinking, and misogyny. The women were called “walking mattresses” and “sluts.” According to Klay, a senior officer in her command, the very first time he spoke to her, said, “Female Marines here are nothing but objects for Marines to fuck.”
The attitude of the post commander can make all the difference. As Ziering pointed out, most of the women in the film had entirely positive experiences for most of their military careers. “Everything I wanted to be,” said Cioca, “they taught you that.” “Everything about the military inspired me,” said Klay who cited the challenges of being smart and fit, and her love of the professionalism and camaraderie. Indeed, the powerful sense of camaraderie, once it’s turned against you, makes the women feel all the more betrayed. Cioca enjoyed the discipline of military life, till she encountered an undisciplined superior.
Trina McDonald breezed through basic training in the Navy but was then sent to an isolated post in Alaska where she was immediately made to feel “like a piece of meat on a slab.” She was raped soon after. After separation from the Navy, McDonald went through a period of homelessness and addiction before finding a stable life with marriage and children. But she is not free of the effects of the trauma. Says her wife, “The biggest hurdle was not taking PTSD personally.”
McDonald’s account made me think of a friend who loved the military life but received transfer orders to a post with a reputation for violent misogyny. “I knew I couldn’t go there,” she said and so she outed herself during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in order to be discharged from the Army.
After Thursday’s screening, an audience member told Ziering, “I hope you made money on this so more work like this can be made.” Money? No. But Ziering and Dick are now so committed to serving those who served their country that Ziering paid her own way to LA to speak and waived the payment of an honorarium. The filmmakers have created a second website, Invisible No More, which offers lists of resources for veterans, a petition to the Pentagon to advocate for new policies, discussion guides and information about hosting a screening. Ziering and Dick are now setting up a fund to assist vets whose PTSD/MST and physical needs aren’t being adequately addressed.
Since the Sundance screening, the invisible war has become much more visible. The major networks have — coincidentally? — aired brief segments about the issue, even when the documentary isn’t mentioned. Ziering first learned about MST through the work of Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict. Now Benedict’s Salon article from 2007 and her books are getting deserved attention. Veterans interviewed in the film are now subjects of feature articles in print around the country. The scandals that have occasionally made the news over the last decades are no longer seen as isolated incidents. The Invisible War has received almost entirely laudatory coverage in the media — except for some voices in the blogosphere. Because of my great respect for the filmmakers, I want to address some of the negative responses, including the charge of “demagoguery,” that can be found on-line.
The confessed and alleged perpetrators weren’t given screen time to respond. True. But would they want to appear? The documentary shielded their identities. Each one of us can judge whether this was the right call or not.
The film shows women vets going to court and having their case dismissed because rape is considered an occupational hazard in the military. This claim gets called “demagoguery” because the court decision in question never cites anything like “occupational hazard.” So I looked this up and find the filmmakers did simplify the legal situation. I don’t fault them for this. If you care to read more than could easily fit into the documentary, keep reading this paragraph and see what you think. Otherwise, please skip ahead. A case that went up to the Supreme Court in 1950, Feres v. the United States, established a doctrine that persons in military service are barred from suing the government for any injury that occurs “incident to military service” — i.e., in laymen’s terms, an occupational hazard. The Feres doctrine has so far precluded women (and men) from bringing suit over rapes and assaults in which the Department of Justice or branches of service were negligent or complicit. Attorney Susan Burke has been trying to make a strategic end run around Feres by asserting Constitutional arguments, filing cases and appeals in different jurisdictions. As for the US District Court case we see being filed in The Invisible War, yes, the judge’s eventual decision to dismiss came down on other grounds and didn’t mention occupational hazards. But when the women’s case was not allowed to proceed, this left the Feres language about “incident to military service” still standing as an obstacle in the way of access to the civilian justice system.
The claim is that contrary to the what the film says, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not announce a policy change two days after seeing the film because accusations of rape were always handled up the chain of command and not resolved at the unit level. In fact, Panetta made it mandatory that unit commanders refer all complaints up the chain of command. As the documentary shows, in the problem units, commanders used their own discretion to close down investigations or bury complaints instead of moving them up.
Unlike some bloggers, the Pentagon is taking the film seriously. Ziering and Dick have been invited to offer a two-day training session at a major base. Their program is surely more likely to have an impact than past anti-rape initiatives undertaken by the military, including the informational poster: Don’t risk it! Ask her when she’s sober! which merely perpetuates the myth that women cry rape the morning after consensual sex. A better approach would be to tell soldiers they have a duty to intervene when they hear a woman like Navy recruit Hannah Sewell screaming for help. No one within earshot responded to her calls for help during the violent attack that took her virginity, injured her back, and left her bruised and bleeding. Oh, by the way, her rape kit and the photos of her injuries were “lost.” Her father, Sgt. Major Jerry Sewell was serving in Afghanistan during part of the time The Invisible War was being filmed but, back in the States, he decided to appear on-camera. He resigned his commission and gave up his military career in order to speak freely, at times in tears, about what happened to his daughter.
MST and the military’s failure to stop it is all very visible now. And with this visibility, Ziering is hopeful. As she told the audience, “When the military takes on an issue, they really can effect change more effectively than in civilian life. The military led the way in racial equality. If the military can take this on and model non-misogynistic behavior, maybe it will make a difference” not just for people in uniform but eventually in civilian life as well.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. This article originally appeared on Hollywood Progressive.