When the system fails

‘The Invisible War’ exposes military’s shameful treatment of sex assault victims

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

The first 15 minutes of Kirby Dick’s new documentary, The Invisible War, contain a staggering opening salvo.

First, the jab, a statistic: “20 percent of servicewomen have been sexually assaulted while serving.”

Then the cross, a devastating montage of 12 victims, from all different branches of the military, each describing how they were raped. Some look at the camera, some look off-screen, some stare vacantly into nothing.

And then the uppercut: If you take into account the chronic underreporting of sexual assaults, Dick and his team estimate that around 500,000 women have been sexually assaulted in the military.

Rape of service members is one of the military’s most damning problems. The sexual assault issue isn’t new, but it’s persistent: It seems that once or twice a decade a major military sexual assault scandal spills its way into headlines. In 1991 there was the Tailhook scandal, in which almost 100 women were systematically sexually assaulted at a symposium; in 1996 there was the Aberdeen scandal, in which a so-called “rape ring” of commanding officers victimized 19 women; in 2003 an investigation at the Air Force Academy discovered that 12 percent of graduating women reported being victims of either rape or attempted rape; and in an unfolding scandal at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, one-quarter of the instructors in a particular training squadron are under investigation for sexual misconduct, according to the Washington Post. But all the scandals seem to have one thing in common: victims, threatened with professional repercussions, afraid to come forward, and commanding officers with prosecutorial power who were reluctant to prosecute.

Dick and his team focus the narrative of the documentary through the lens of a small handful of victims, but his team did extensive interviews with more than 70 victims, he says. Dozens of them make their way into the documentary, and each of their stories, in the most heartbreaking way possible, further illustrates just how bad the problem is.

“The reason we did that is so that people would not walk away thinking ‘Oh, this happened to five or six or seven people,’” Dick tells Boulder Weekly. “No, it’s happened to probably five or six or seven hundred thousand people over the last several generations.”

One of the scariest facts pointed out in the documentary is that reporting sexual assaults might be harder for members of the military than for civilians. When civilians want to report a rape, they go to the police. But the civilian systems of law have no power over military affairs. When military members need to report a sexual assault, they have to go to their commanding officer.

And the commanding officer has complete discretion when deciding when to prosecute.

The victims Dick interviews tell how their commanding officer in charge of prosecuting the rape was a friend of the rapist, or had some sort of vested interest, such as maintaining unit cohesion, in making the charge disappear. And sometimes it was worse: About 25 percent of rapes in the military go unreported, the filmmakers figure, because the officer that would be in charge of bringing the rapist to justice is the rapist.

Victim-blaming of sexual assault victims in the civilian world is rampant, but in the military it might be worse. If the commander with prosecutorial discretion decides it’s the victim’s fault and not the rapist’s, there’s practically nothing else the victim can do, and it becomes a long, uphill battle to get the military to cover any treatment associated with the trauma from the rape.

Former Denver Post journalists Amy Herdy and Miles Moffeit investigated sexual assault cover-ups in the military in a Pulitzer-nominated series called “Betrayal in the Ranks.” Dick contacted Herdy early in production, and she appears on camera several times throughout the documentary. The similarities between the injustices Herdy and Moffeit uncovered in the past decade and the ones Dick uncovered in the past two years are dishearteningly similar.

“The faces and the names change, but it’s really the same details,” Herdy tells Boulder Weekly. “These women are raped by superior officers, and when they report … the military tries to drone them out by either saying they’re crazy or they’re liars. And if they get rid of them either way, then they don’t have to give them benefits. And once they get out of the military, it’s a horrific struggle to try to get any kind of benefits, to get help, to get counseling or any sort of mental health assistance.”

Victims often know their rapists personally, and they often are in a position where they must see and interact with their perpetrators every day. Instead of an impartial prosecutor making the decision to press charges, it’s a woman’s commanding officer, who might be buddies with the rapist. If a woman’s commanding officer thinks she’s lying about a sexual assault charge, or is unsympathetic to her, there is practically nothing else she can do. In the worst-case scenario, evidenced by several of the women in the documentary, the officer can press charges against the woman herself and derail her military career. For example, several victims who appear in The Invisible War were charged with adultery after reporting the rape, despite being single. It was the rapist who was married.

“When they go after the rape victim in the military, they tear down her entire life,” Herdy says. “That’s her job, that’s where she lives, it’s who she associates with. It’s supposed to be her family. Think about it. It’s everything. A rape victim in the civilian world goes home and hopefully has some sort of support structure and has separate living quarters that don’t remind them of their sexual assault, and hopefully they don’t see their perpetrator every day like they do in the military.”

Only 3,158 sexual assaults were reported in 2010, according to the Department of Defense, which estimates the actual number to be around 19,000 when taking under-reporting into account. The filmmakers crunch the numbers from a bunch of reports and say that out of the 3,223 perpetrators the military identified in 2010, only 175 served any jail time whatsoever.

The documentary paints the military’s efforts to prevent sexual assault as laughably inadequate. They include posters, training videos rife with victim-blaming, and a rap video. Yes, a rap video (“turn the other cheek is a thing of the past / Up close and real when they try to harass”). And when the military brass faithfully repeats the party lines when asked about sexual assault, Dick allows victim advocates to shoot them down point-by-point.

But Dick says progress is being made.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film recently and told one of Dick’s executive producers, Jennifer Newsom, that he was very moved by it.

“We expected they would take the usual response when there’s an exposé around sexual assault in the military, which is to either discredit the film or attack the subjects in the film… but they haven’t, and I think it’s because the film is really infallible,” he says.

Shortly after seeing the film, Panetta held a press conference announcing that prosecutorial discretion for sexual assaults would be moved up the chain of command. The military also ordered copies of the documentary for training purposes, Dick says. They are good steps, but they don’t go far enough, he says.

“The problem is it’s still within the chain of command, at the colonel level,” Dick says. “They still have a conflict of interest and can know the perpetrator, can know the defendant, and can have motivation to keep this covered up as well. The decision to investigate and prosecute has to move entirely out of the chain of command.”

The film is a powerful and devastating look at the shameful way sexual assault is handled in the military. You can’t watch the film and not get infuriated with the disgusting way the victims interviewed in The Invisible War were treated while serving their country. While steps are being taken to fix the problem, the military is still a long way from arriving at a place where men and women receive equal treatment.

“Women are in the military, but women are not embraced in the military. We are a long, long way from having it be where it should,” Herdy says.

“If I had a daughter, which I don’t, but if I had a daughter, I would fight like hell to try to talk her out of joining the military,” she says.

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