(This is a guest post by Holly Kearl. Holly is an activist and non-profit professional whose work focuses on gender-based violence and street harassment. Find out more about her at her website. It was cross-posted on Ms. Magazine Blog)
On January 22nd, I attended both a screening of The Invisible War at the Sundance Film Festival and a survivor- speak-out afterward. I can’t stop thinking about what I saw and heard.
Prior to seeing the film, I knew about the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. I’d read the alarming statistics. The Department of Defense estimates that during 2010, there were up to 19,000 women raped in the military. Twenty percent of female veterans were raped by their coworkers either when they were recruits or as active duty members. One percent of men in the military are raped each year.
Not only is rape epidemic in the military, but prosecution is low and retaliation against survivors is high. For example, of the few reported rapes, only 8 percent are ever prosecuted and only 2 percent end in conviction. Since perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders, the lack of penalty means the vast majority of rapists can continue raping – both their coworkers in their military and members of their community when they are home. This is an outrage.
While I knew these statistics, I didn’t know or connect with the stories of the survivors until yesterday.
Intending to make the military their career, during the film most of the survivors featured sadly shared how they left the military after their assaults. Even though they love the military, every one of them said they would not recommend the military as a career to any other woman until significant structural changes occur to make the military safer.
Each survivor described their feelings of betrayal for being assaulted by their military “brothers,” and how traumatizing it was to face retaliation from the military (some of the women were even put under investigation and charged with adultery because their assailants claimed the rape was consensual and were married men). The frustration of inadequate health care, therapy, and support was another common theme.
One of the survivors is Trina McDonald, a Navy officer, was drugged and raped repeatedly by other officers on a remote base in Alaska. During the survivor speak-out, we were horrified to hear that during her therapy at the Veterans Affairs (VA), she was told to record what happened to her in great detail and then play that every day until she became desensitized to the trauma. She stopped replaying her tape when the “therapy” made her suicidal. She asked members of the Utah VA present at the speak-out to please do what they could to stop that harmful treatment.
Another survivor is Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca. Her rapist dislocated her jaw and the VA has yet to provide medical coverage to fix it. Instead they proscribed an alarming amount of drugs, which Cioca displays in the documentary. During the speak-out, she described how one insensitive doctor questioned why she was there and then tried to pry her mouth open with his hands, jammed a mirror in her mouth and only stopped when she got up and left; her pleas to not touch her falling on deaf ears.
Witnessing the impact the rapes and assaults had on the survivors’ family members both in the film and at the speak-out was devastating. Many of the women were married to members of the military or had fathers serving. Most of the men left once they found out what happened and to this day and their every-day life is forever changed as they work to help their loved ones recover their health, their dignity, their life. It was their tears that moved me to tears. I am not a survivor of sexual assault but I know too well the same feeling of helplessness of trying to make things better for loved ones who are survivors and who are in so much pain. Not everything was sad, however. There were messages of hope everywhere. The film showed dedicated members of Congress working to create and pass a legislative fix. We saw brave survivors, including Cicoca, and their lawyer Susan Burke sue the Department of Defense for violating their constitutional rights. And even though the district court judge dismissed the case last month, ruling that rape in the military is an occupational hazard for which you cannot sue the government, they are appealing the decision. The love the survivors’ families show them was also a positive force throughout the film.
During the survivor speak-out, more hope emerged. Survivor after survivor said that working with film producer Amy Ziering was better therapy than anything they went through at the VA because she actually let them talk and listened to their stories without cutting them off or dismissing them. One survivor from Salt Lake City who was not in the film but simply heard about the event and decided to attend said that 90 minutes of watching the film did more good for her than had her years of therapy with VA therapists.
The survivors said once they began working on the film, it was heartening to know they weren’t alone in dealing with these issues. They now had a band of people who had gone through it too and with whom they could advocate for a better military. The film was a turning point for many of them and also a way to reclaim their voices. They hoped it could be a turning point for all the survivors who view the film.
Some of the spouses of survivors spoke at the session too, and they said how cathartic it was to be part of the film. One husband of a survivor said, “It’s hard to know where you can make a difference in the world” but that the film showed him how he and his wife can: by speaking out and advocating for changes.
You don’t just have to be a survivor or the loved one of a survivor to make a difference. If you want to do something, please:
- Sign and share a petition asking for structural changes in the military.
- When the film is available, watch it, tell your friends about it, or host a screening party.
- Send concrete and pragmatic recommendations for changes to the filmmakers.
- Keep up with the Take Action page to find out what else you can do.
It will take all of our voices to ensure that the military does the right thing.