Ever since the Navy’s Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Pentagon has declared a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual assault and rape by troops. But as “The Invisible War,” a powerful new documentary out on DVD this week makes clear, the U.S. military’s actual measures to prevent rape and punish rapists range from insulting to laughable to virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, women (and men) who sign up to risk their lives for our country are being driven out of the armed forces after having their bodies assaulted and their careers ruined.
Director Kirby Dick’s previous documentaries include a film about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and the scandals in these two institutions do have a striking number of similarities. Both handle sexual assault charges internally, both have erred on the side of protecting the reputations of those accused while ignoring the needs and rights of victims. And in both worlds, the often intimate relationship between victim and rapist can make the crime even more confusing and painful.
The women of “The Invisible War” are almost deceptively strong, taking great pride in their military service and relating the abuse they suffered in unflinching detail. At one point, a former Army criminal investigator who has appeared throughout the film to testify about the Army’s reluctance to handle rape cases talks about her own rape by a commanding officer. It takes a moment to register that this no-nonsense woman is no longer in the military because she reported her rape (she was given an administrative discharge with no benefits after nearly ten years of service) while her rapist continues to rise up the ranks.
The stories these women tell are horrifying, especially because so many of them involve rape by men who were supposed to have their backs, their own band of brothers. The use of date-rape drugs is prevalent, as is the refusal by superiors to believe rape charges. One woman stationed at an isolated base in Alaska couldn’t tell anyone about multiple rape attacks because all outside calls were routed through a base operator who listened in. Several other women were themselves charged with adultery because their rapists were married. An accomplished young Marine with a post at the prestigious Marine Corps Barracks in Washington was horrified to watch her rapist go unpunished while she was charged with conduct-unbecoming and public intoxication.
The film focuses on the case of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard vet now living in Ohio. Having failed to convince superiors to investigate or charge her rapist, Cicoa is now just on a quest to get the Veterans Administration to cover medical treatment for her jaw, which was broken by the commander who subsequently raped her. (Cicoa is eventually denied because she left the Coast Guard two months before the end of her initial enlistment.) In one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes, Cicoa is at a Bob Evans restaurant when she overhears a waitress mention that she has just signed up for the military. Cicoa, who has PTSD, carries a knife everywhere, and planned her suicide several years ago—going so far as to write a suicide letter for her mother—approaches the waitress and begs her to reconsider.
Perhaps more shocking than the stories of these women (and one man in the film) is the total failure of the military to competently address the problem. The Department of Defense estimates that roughly 19,000 sexual assaults occur each year within the military services, and just a fraction of those—around 3,100 in 2010—are reported. Of those rapes that are brought to the military’s attention, only 17% are ever prosecuted. (National surveys estimate that 37% of rapes in the general population are prosecuted.) And a 2011 DoD report revealed that only 6% of troops who commit rape ever spend any time in jail. Although female soldiers may report sexual assaults to civilian law enforcement, they are encouraged to report first to their commanding officer or to military police. In some cases, when military commanders have declined to prosecute a rape charge, military investigators have taken the cases instead to a local district attorney’s office.
In 2005, under pressure after several high-profile scandals including sexual abuse cases at the Air Force Academy, the Defense Department set up the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPRO) to “improve prevention of sexual assault, significantly enhance support to victims, and increase reporting and accountability.” Most such offices established under duress are usually more symbolic than substantive, lacking the power or influence to make policy. But they at least act as committed advocates for their stated mission. SAPRO’s work is so inadequate, that it raises the question of whether the office’s entire existence is just some sort of cruel joke. The office produces ludicrous training videos that wouldn’t pass muster for a junior high PSA. In one, a female soldier is accosted on base at night and when she screams for help, the men who come running lecture her. “Where’s your buddy?” one asks, referencing SAPRO’s oh-so-helpful suggestion that women travel on base with a “buddy” in order to avoid being caught alone. “I didn’t think I needed one!" replies the ridiculously flaky victim.
Dr. Kaye Whitley, the office’s original director, is the military’s worst spokesperson in “The Invisible War,” explaining the problem to filmmakers by reminding them that the armed forces are populated by young, “hormonally-charged” kids. When asked about data that indicates incoming recruits are much more likely to have committed or attempted rape than the general population, Whitley demurs. “My expertise is really on prevention and victim care,” she says. Dick points out that screening for rape arrests might be a useful prevention tool, but Whitley insists that her focus is on “risk reduction.” That turns out to mean working with women to make sure they don’t get raped instead of making sure that their male colleagues aren’t permitted to rape with impunity.
Whitley’s successor, Major General Mary Kay Kellogg, isn’t much better. She tells Dick that rape victims can always go to their congressman or congresswoman for help, or they can appeal to the Defense Department’s Inspector General.* Yet when the filmmaker looks into the IG’s action on sexual assault cases, it turns out that of nearly 3,000 that had been forwarded to the office, none—zero—were investigated.
Everyone professes concern about rape in the military, but no one can seem to agree how to change it. Politicians harangue military leaders at congressional hearings. The Department of Defense says it’s trying. When a D.C. lawyer helped several of the women in the film bring a civil lawsuit against DoD last year for violating their due process rights, a U.S. District Court dismissed the case because it said that congressional remedy was required instead of judicial remedy. (The movie’s one false note—and it’s an important one—is that it claims this legal case was thrown out because the court ruled that rape in the military is “an occupational hazard.” That would indeed be appalling, but the court order does not contain that phrase nor any explanation that comes close to that description. Shame on the filmmakers, who had powerful enough material without this false charge.) After viewing the documentary in April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced changes requiring local unit commanders to report charges of serious sexual abuse to “a special court-martial convening authority.” But Panetta left in place the existing structure that allows commanders (who in some cases are also the assailants, and who regardless rarely have legal training) the discretion to investigate or charge rape and other sexual assaults.
“The Invisible War,” which toured the film festival circuit this year and had a limited theatrical release, should be required viewing for members of Congress and the presidential candidates. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney make references to doing right by troops. But so far, that does not include the women and men who serve their country only to be betrayed and assaulted both by their colleagues and by the military institution that is supposed to protect them.
*This article originally referred to the "Defense Department's Attorney General"--a non-existent position--instead of the DoD's Inspector General.