Jennifer D. Stephens Headshot

The Invisible War: Tackling the Tough Topic of Sexual Assault in the Military

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This weekend my Battalion in the Ohio Army National Guard had our mandatory
annual sexual assault prevention training. This is typically something that
is dreaded amongst all soldiers, regardless of age or rank. You sit in a
packed, dark room watching a power point presentation with a few video clips
or, as DoD has moved to in recent years, a poorly executed and low budget
film that lasts about an hour. Typically these trainings generate little to
no conversation (other than the whispered jokes between buddies about the
poor acting in the films or what they could be doing instead of sitting in
useless training). Soldiers sit sucking down coffee, Mountain Dew, Monster
Energy drinks or 5 Hour Energy shots and do their best to stay awake. Half
the room is doing the "Blackberry Prayer" -- sitting with their head bowed
slightly as if in prayer, with thumbs moving furiously over mobile phones
nestled half concealed in their laps, texting, emailing or surfing the web
in an attempt to stimulate their minds and not nod off. By the end of the
training, a quarter of the soldiers are standing up along the edges of the
room in a last-ditch effort to stay awake -- not because they don't want to
miss a second of the enthralling training, but because they don't want to
get caught sleeping by their supervisor. The supervisors half pay attention
to the training and instead stalk around the room in the shadows, hoping to
catch a soldier with their eyes closed and dole out the appropriate
punishment. I have seen, on more than one occasion, a soldier almost fully
asleep while standing up propped against the wall. This same scenario plays
out on a yearly basis in Guard, Reserve and Active Duty units in the Army,
Air Force, Marines, Navy, and Coast Guard across the world. This much-needed
training has been diminished to a "check the block" requirement that almost
no one pays attention to and that certainly no one talks about.

It's no secret that sexual assault and sexual harassment cases are on the
rise at an alarming rate throughout the Military. Multiple high profile
incidents have made their way to the main stream media, causing the pucker
factor for top Military and Government brass to skyrocket and draw an
onslaught of anger and criticism from citizens across the world. While this
trend is considered despicable and an embarrassment to most honorable and
upstanding service members -- it's generally still not something talked about
in the open. It's discussed in hushed tones behind closed office doors or
empty hallways. A few concerns are expressed and some armchair quarterback
"solutions" to the problem are tossed around and then then everyone goes on
about their normal routine. What's even worse, in the units where there is
an incident of assault or harassment, most of the time the conversation
centers around the latest rumor -- who did what, how did it happen, who was
right, who was wrong, personal opinions and accusations get tossed around,
lines are drawn, sides are taken -- and it all still happens in hushed tones
behind closed doors. Rarely is the topic or sexual assault and harassment
discussed openly and frankly in a safe and truthful environment.

All of the above has applied to every unit I've ever been in and is even how
I personally have acted and viewed the mandatory snooze fest that is sexual
assault response and prevention training. Until this weekend.

This weekend my Battalion tossed the Army-provided training out the window
and instead chose to play the documentary The Invisible War. I had seen the
documentary about six weeks prior. I had heard of the documentary and ordered
the DVD and watched it at home. It was eye opening to say the least. The day
after watching it, I contacted my Battalion Commander and told him I wanted
to play it for my Battery (56 soldiers). I wanted to run it by him first and
see if watching the documentary could satisfy our annual requirement for
sexual assault training. He had seen the documentary as well and surprised
me by taking it one step further -- let's play it for the entire Battalion
(approx. 250 soldiers). By chance, a soldier in our Battalion happened to
know one of the females whose story is told in the documentary and mentioned
to her what we were doing and wanted to know if she was interested in
attending. Our Battalion Commander extended to her the offer of attending
the screening but also to address the soldiers afterwards if she was
comfortable doing so. She was. What played out that Sunday morning was the
single most amazing experience I have had in my 10+ year military career.

During the duration of the 98-minute film, soldiers' eyes were glued to the
screen. Mobile phones stayed tucked away in pockets. Whispered jokes and
conversations between buddies were nonexistent. Supervisors standing in the
back of the room didn't move around the room but instead stood still as
statues, watching as the various stories were told on the screen.
Occasionally, soldiers could be seen dabbing at the corners of their eyes,
wiping away silent tears. At several points throughout the film, audible
expressions of shock, anger and disbelief were heard. When the film ended,
there was silence. When the lights came on, most of the soldiers just sat.
Several stood and stretched and conversation began again. The general
feeling in the room (in my opinion) was, "Wow that was powerful -- but time
to get back to the humdrum of drill weekend." The Battalion Commander
walked to the front, asking people to sit back down. He said "No breaks,
just sit back down, we aren't done yet." He made a few statements about how
powerful the film was -- and then introduced the guest speaker that only a
few people knew was there. Kori Cioca -- the former Coast Guard member whose
story was one of those told in the film. Heads whipped around, almost not
believing that she was actually here, at our unit, to speak to us. And then
the first of many amazing things from that morning happened -- as this tiny
woman made her way up the center aisle of the auditorium, soldiers began
clapping and then stood. As she realized that all these soldiers were
standing for her, tears rolled down her cheeks. I can't imagine how it made
her feel to have a room full of combat-tested soldiers, most of whom towered
over her, give her a resounding and heartfelt standing ovation.

For the next hour and a half, the soldiers of 1-174th Air Defense Artillery
Battalion openly and honestly discussed the topic of sexual assault and
harassment in our military. The questions that Kori was asked were varied --
what does she think about the Army's Sexual Assault Prevention Response
program and Unit Victim Advocates; has the lawsuit that she's a part of made
any headway; what happened to her perpetrator; how did she get involved in
the documentary; how is her medical care progressing; etc. In addition to
questions, a lot of soldiers raised their hands just to be able to thank
Kori and tell her what an inspiration she is, how strong she is and how her
story resonated with them on a personal level. Kori answered every single
question and thanked every person with the most sincere honesty and openness
that I've ever witnessed. And she didn't sugar coat anything. She elaborated
on some of the details of her story that were not in the documentary,
details that were extremely personal; she discussed her current medical
situation; she openly talked about her struggles, both physical and
emotional. She opened up, to a room full of strangers, about the most
violent invasion of her physical body and how it has affected and changed
her. She cried, and several soldiers cried with her. She laughed, and
everyone laughed with her. But she was real. At one point in the discussion,
Kori relayed a story of regret that she had, that she felt as though she
were responsible for someone else being assaulted. And as she was expressing
her regret and choking up as she was talking, a soldier spoke up and just
said "You can't blame yourself. It's not your fault. It's his fault. He's
the one that attacked her. Don't blame yourself." I was stunned, honestly,
and it gave me chills to hear this burly man speak up in support of a woman
he has never met and offer his support. And I realized that every single
soldier in that room suddenly had a real face and a real story to put to the
issue of sexual assault and harassment. And it finally became not only real,
but personal. I'm not naive enough to think that there weren't any soldiers
in the room to which this issue is already personal. Whether in the military
or civilian world, more soldiers in that room have been affected by this
issue than anyone will know. But now they know they can talk about it if
they need to. Now they know their brother or sister in arms to the left or
right of them will support them and help them.

After the conversation was over, soldiers lined up to shake Kori's hand or to
give her a hug and thank her for being the amazingly strong woman that she
is. I have no doubt that soldiers left that room changed. Soldiers who
walked into the room complaining about having to sit through boring sexual
assault prevention training yet again walked away with a completely
different outlook. But the training won't stop there. Now that the subject
has been thrown into the open and is not looked at as taboo anymore, we are
talking about it. We are brainstorming ways to ensure that something like
this doesn't happen to our soldiers, and if it does, what we will do to
protect and shelter the victim and ensure the prosecution of the
perpetrator. In all my years attending sexual assault prevention training, I
have never once heard anyone talking about it after it was over. But now we
are. And now we understand that there is work to be done, and in order to
make a difference we have to talk, we have to stand up and speak out against
it and we have to do it together. Because only together are we not
invisible.