Rape in the American armed forces is an issue that has quietly been gathering attention over the past decade. But it exploded with the power of suppressed fury at the screening on Friday afternoon of the documentary “The Invisible War,” a devastating indictment of the government’s inaction on the issue.
Director Kirby Dick brought a powerful weapon to his film: victim after eloquent victim of rape by Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, Army, Air Force veterans assaulted by fellow officers, supervisors, recruits.
They tell their stories in courageous detail, and it quickly becomes clear that these are not isolated incidents but a pattern reflective of a widespread rot within America’s military institution, one that betrays its essential values.
The women Dick chose as the principal characters of his film – there were so many to choose from – were among the best of their class. They were women (and in some cases, men) who joined the military out of devotion to country and a desire to serve.
One Marine, Ariana Klay, was raped by a fellow officer in the elite Marine Barracks in Washington DC.
A Navy officer, Trina McDonald, was drugged and raped repeatedly by fellow officers on a remote base in Alaska.
Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca was raped and then assaulted – smacked so hard in the face that it dislocated her jaw, causing her permanent damage and pain that the Veterans Administration declines to cover.
One woman who was assaulted had previously been a military investigator of crimes. Rape investigations were always steered away from the women, she recounted, because they would be “too sympathetic.”
Every single woman in the film has had her life shattered by this event – not because of the rape necessarily, but because of the response by the military establishment.
After lodging complaints, the women were met with indifference or targeted retaliation. They have had to leave the military. Some were threatened with violence.
For each, the betrayal by their colleagues and by an institution they trusted deeply has been a wound that, as one military psychologist affirms, cuts to “the soul.”
Almost none of the alleged perpetrators were brought up on charges or punished in any way. Some have gone on to rape again, in the military or private sector.
Kirby, who took on the Catholic Church’s indifference to sexual abuse in “Twist of Faith,” hopes the film will mobilize change in a way that lobbying and newspaper journalism so far has not.
Two obvious policy changes are necessary: better screening of new recruits to winnow out potential predators, and moving the authority for investigating and prosecuting rape into indendent hands. At the moment, local commanders have nearly all the power in these matters.
The military “has to admit they have a problem,” said Dick at the Q&A after the screening, where more than a half-dozen victims stood and received applause. (A video interview with them is posted below.) “They need another mind set to attack this issue.”
The movie, which does not yet have distribution, profoundly shocked the audience. One military recruiter stood and asked for the names of the bases involved so she could steer female enlistees away from known risk areas. A 17-year-old girl stood up in tears and thanked the women for speaking out.
But there was one inspiring surprise after the screening. A couple from the audience approached Cioca and told her they will pay for the surgery to her jaw, which causes her pain every day. The cost is around $60,000 and without V.A. medical coverage she cannot afford it.
Cioca was overwhelmed (photo at right as she is told of the gift by the donor). The couple, an investment banker and his wife, said they preferred to remain anonymous.