Can you imagine working in an environment where rape was categorized as an “occupational hazard?” Being trapped in a remote location where your phone calls were screened and the only person you could report your assault to was the perpetrator himself? What if there were no police to capture your assailant and no judge to convict him? Would you dedicate your life to an organization that refused to compensate you for physical injuries resulting from sexual violence on the job?
Unbelievably, 400,000 American women have a career that places them in way of these threats – they serve the United States military.
I have never watched a movie alone in a theater, but Tuesday night I trekked to Grafton to see The Invisible War. All I knew was that it was a documentary about sexual assault in the military, not the kind of thing most people would accept an invitation to. In the end, I was glad I went alone. I cried at least three times and had to save my snack for after the film.
Professor Amelia Underwood, a veteran of the U.S. Army, hosted the film, and said she hoped to call people to action, to be “aware of the epidemic” of sexual assault in the military, a goal similar to that of Kirby Dick, writer and director of the first documentary ever made on the subject. While the figures are absolutely staggering – over 3,000 assaults last year, with projected unreported cases bringing the number to a whopping 19,000 – the military and the media have shown little response.
While civilians may feel the issue does not involve them, the reality is that only 244 perpetrators were convicted of their crimes, most of whom served catch and release sentences. That means that last year alone literally thousands of sexual predators got away with their crimes, with not so much as registration on the national sex offender’s database. These people serve their time in the military, but they come home to live side by side with the rest of us, a quiet threat that could be averted by simply serving appropriate justice at the time of offense.
The documentary follows the stories of several women and one man, incredible people who bravely bare all in hope of putting an end to the injustices they have suffered, traumas that extend far beyond the initial crime. For instance, Kori Cioca has lived with a permanent injury after a superior officer struck her in the face and raped her, dislocating disks in her jaw. At the time of filming she had already waited 14 months for government aid to pay for surgery to fix her condition, but on Veteran’s Day 2011 gets fed up and takes a roadtrip to the VA Vet hospital with her husband and young daughter. No one there even knows who she is, and a short time later, she receives a letter denying her claim. For Kori and her husband, the abandonment of the Coast Guard, an organization they had once loved and trusted like family, is the greatest injustice of all.
Another women shared her story of time served at Marine Barracks Washington, the most prestigious Marine unit in the country. They are highly respected, the best of the best’s best, the ones who stand beside the President at speeches and perform the silent drill on special occasions. It is, however, also a place that women describe as predatory, where sexual harassment is tolerated and even encouraged. Women are forced into situations they don’t want to be in, sometimes commanded by superiors officers to drink past the point of intoxication. And, just a side note but also maddening, these drinking events are paid for by the U.S. government! How is anything about this legal?
Oh yeah, I forgot, because there is no law but military law inside their justice system. Decisions, even those involving serious felony crimes, are left to commanding officers at the offender’s unit – often a friend of the perpetrator, often a man. In fact, one lady said in her investigation unit only men handled the sexual assault cases, because women were thought to be too sentimental. The military’s only real response to the issue has been the foundation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, whose primary educational efforts has been tied into victim blaming. The office makes no real “prevention” effort at all, as they know nothing about those likely to commit sexual crimes. Former director Kaye Whitley actually looked surprise when she was informed that men who join the military are twice as likely to have already committed sexual assault than men who choose other careers. Girl, learn your facts.
The documentary made note that although some cases of assault have been large enough to gain national attention, the events were quickly forgotten without inspiring social or legal change. I am too young to remember instances like the 1991 Tailhook Scandal, but was appalled by the report of a young woman who had to fight a room full of men in order to keep her clothes on, an event her commanding officer later said was “her fault for walking down a hallway of drunk aviators.” It disgusts me that over a decade later this kind of thing is still happening.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past year, and won the People’s Choice Award. Since it was released, it has already inspired two major events. First, several days after watching the film, the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta mandated that all reported cases of sexual assault be handled by an officer with rank of colonel or higher. Second, eight women from Marine Barrack’s Washington banned together to file suit against military leaders for allowing predatory conditions.
While this is awesome news, I have to agree with Kori that prosecution for sexual offenders be taken out of the military’s hands altogether. They have shown themselves to be completely inept at handling the situation, and every victim deserves the right to a fair and equal trial, a chance for justice to be served. As civilians, we have to support their cause to protect out neighborhoods from an influx of predators, men who have gotten away with crimes once and will not hesitate to try again.
Admittedly the film is hard to watch, but something necessary to see. A culture that allows 20% of service women (1 in 5!) and 1% of men (a higher number than it seems due to gender proportions) to be sexually assaulted can not continue. Kudos to our feminist campus for hosting such an event!