In December 2005, Kori Cioca was raped by a commanding officer while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, which resulted in a broken jaw. Cioca was told by her chain of command that if she went forward with the case, she would be court-martialed for lying. Her attacker, who admitted to the attack but denied the rape, received 30 days of base restriction and loss of pay.
“He didn’t rape me because I was pretty or that he wanted to have sex with me; he raped me because he hated me,” she said when describing the incident.
A film up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature is putting the spotlight on the growing problem of sexual assault in the U.S. military. “The Invisible War” features interviews from women from several branches of the military who experienced rape and claim they had little or no help from Armed Forces officials.
According to the Veterans Health Administration, over 108,000 veterans screened positive for military sex trauma in 2010. Nearly 70,000 had at lease one outpatient visit for sex trauma. An estimated 19,000 assaults are believed to have occurred, but only 244 convictions happened.
A report in the Psychology of Women Quarterly reveals that some evidence suggests that Black women in the military are more likely to experience more severe forms of harassment compared to their white counterparts, including unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.
Focusing on the emotional stories of rape victims, “The Invisible War” by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering describes the cover-up of military sex crimes, chronicling the women’s struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice.
Stories in the film include Ariana Klay, a Marine who served in Iraq before being raped by a senior officer and his friend, and then threatened with death, and Trina McDonald, who was drugged and raped repeatedly by military policemen at her remote naval station in Adak, Alaska.
“We were extremely surprised by the extent of the problem, how psychologically damaging it was and the extent of the cover-up,” Dick said. “More than half a million service men and women have been sexually assaulted since World War II. That comes as a shock to everyone we’ve spoken to. This is my 10th film, and its subject matter is the least known to the public of any of my films, even though it most widely affects our society.”
To find subjects, the filmmakers put up a Facebook page inviting victims to share their stories off the record. They also scoured the Internet for news stories on the topic, usually from small outlets, and began contacting victims’ advocates and journalists.
The filmmakers contacted over 150 women, interviewing approximately 70 of them for several hours each. Based on the interviews, they narrowed it down to their top two-dozen subjects to film preliminary interviews.
Since the film’s release, several elected officials from across the nation have voiced their outrage over sexual assault in the military, claiming the Pentagon isn’t doing enough. California Rep. Jackie Speier said turning a blind eye to the issue further victimizes women.
“Despite admonitions that the military has zero tolerance for rape, the military system supports a culture that values ‘military character’ over justice for victims,” she said. “Unlike the civilian system, the defense may cross-examine victims, and previous sexual conduct is admissible evidence. It’s no wonder so few victims report the crime.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that military leaders at all levels must take responsibility to stop sexual assault. He noted the department has taken steps to strengthen sexual assault prevention. For example, he said, department policy now allows a sexual assault victim to rapidly transfer from an assigned unit where the assault happened.
“Any sexual assault has no place in the military. We have to do a better job at dealing with this,” Panetta said. “If we don’t take steps to deal with it–if we don’t exercise better leadership to confront it–it’ll get worse. And that’s why it’s really important that we take the responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t have a place in the military. I have men and women in the military who put their lives on the line … to protect this country. Surely we owe it to them to be able to protect them.”