In 2007 filmmaker Kirby Dick read an article about the thousands of female soldiers raped while serving in Iraq. He was stunned by the numbers: More than 20 percent of female soldiers are sexually assaulted during service. A female soldier is far more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than killed in combat. More than 19,000 soldiers are sexually assaulted each year. The military prosecutes less than five percent of those cases.
Those figures fueled a fire within Dick. The acclaimed director had made his reputation by spotlighting scandals few dared to touch. He earned his first Oscar nomination in 2005 for Twist of Faith, which gave a voice to the sex abuse victims of the Catholic Church. Dick became determined to push beyond the Pentagon's numbers and give a voice to its victims as well.
Dick and producer Amy Ziering spent the next two years examining those soldiers' cases. The result is The Invisible War, an infuriating documentary which demonstrates irrefutably that the victims who have stepped forward are not isolated incidents but targets of a long-established system of assault and denial. The film features a cast of brave women and several men willing to look into the camera and speak not as numbers, or as anonymous shadows, but as proud soldiers with their full names at the bottom of the screen.
The Invisible War won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and has now been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It is the year's most significant film.
The director spoke with me about film's success, the courage of the soldiers who shared their stories, and what it will take to make sure these victims are no longer invisible to the press, the public and those in power.
Kors: The numbers are incredible.
Dick: They're astounding, especially if you look back at the last several generations, since women became a core component in the military. We're talking about between a half a million and a million soldiers sexually assaulted during their service. You would think that would be a massive scandal. But this story had been so effectively covered up. Before reading that Salon article I hadn't heard of it. And no one I talked to had either.
Kors: Most of the military's own recruits don't know. There's a heartbreaking scene in the film where Kori [Cioca, a seaman who was brutally raped while serving in the Coast Guard,] talks with a waitress who is planning on entering the military. Kori tries to tell her about the danger ahead of her, and she just brushes her off. She doesn't want to hear it.
Dick: Yeah, that was hard. Most women entering the military aren't aware of what's going on, and those that have heard something usually don't know the extent of it. The truth is, for a young woman entering the military, being raped is a real possibility.
Kors: And your film makes clear, the Pentagon has accepted that fact as just part of military life. Your film looks at the class-action lawsuit that Kori and 27 other victims of sexual assault filed against the Pentagon, asserting that the military failed to protect them or punish their rapists. The Pentagon defended itself, arguing that being raped was simply an "occupational hazard" of serving in the military. The judge embraced that defense and dismissed the case.
Dick: That's right. These soldiers basically have nowhere to turn. The court ruled that they don't have a claim against the government. And when they pursue the rape charge through the military, the military turns on them, threatening to terminate their careers or charge them with sexual misconduct. We spoke with three women who were raped, then charged with adultery. They weren't married; the men who raped them were.
Kors: How many soldiers did you speak with?
Dick: We reached out to over 150 soldiers. We interviewed about 70 of them.
Kors: The courage that those women show in your film is remarkable the fearlessness of stepping in front of a camera and laying out the horrific details of their rape, with no shadow and no pseudonym.
Dick: Courage yes, but fearlessness every victim in our film had a great deal of fear. Last time they spoke out they faced serious reprisals from the military. Several of them had been threatened by the men who raped them. They were told to stay silent. In the course of our research we found several cases of victims who reported being raped and were then killed by the rapist. To speak out anyway, on camera, took a lot of bravery.
Kors: There's a horrific pattern to the rape stories in your film: The soldier is raped, reports the rape, the military takes aggressive efforts to protect the rapist and sweep away the complaint, then threatens the victim or reprimands her. This is across all the branches of the military, with soldiers who are young and still serving and others who are much older and served many years ago. The pattern hasn't changed.
Dick: No, it hasn't. That's why it was so important to include soldiers from previous generations. We did not want this film to be dismissed as a series of recent incidents. This is a long-established pattern. It's systemic. It's been happening for generations and is happening now on bases around the world.
Kors: Many have compared the military to the Catholic Church. The church has been devoted to harboring pedophiles, protecting them and covering up their crimes. The military, it seems, offers the same kind of safe haven for rapists.
Dick: I recognize the similarities. Both are powerful institutions, and the people in the church and the military trust those institutions deeply, which makes them very vulnerable. The Catholic Church is still fighting the sex abuse scandal, denying that it's a widespread problem, blaming the victims, and accusing critics of being anti-Catholic. I hope that eventually the military will take a different route. People who see our movie know, this is not an anti-military film. It presents a critique of the military. But most of the soldiers who spoke with us were proud to have served. Most of them wish they still had a career in the military.
Kors: You interview several high-ranking military officials in the film. The officials who seem coldest to the plights of the victims are all women.
Dick: Yeah, it's ironic. The military is a very hierarchical system. And there is still a lot of debate about where women should be in that system. So when women gain power, most of them stay quiet, so they don't lose it. They could be accused of using their power to protect other women. A charge like that could severely impact their careers.
Kors: The official who really stunned me was Dr. Kaye Whitley, the former director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. She says that "risk reduction" is the key to dealing with sexual assault. You ask her what the military can do to reduce the risk of soldiers being raped. She looks baffled, then says the only idea she has is teaching female soldiers not to walk around the base without a buddy by their side.
Dick: Ah, yes, the "buddy system," the idea that the only way to be safe when you're walking on base is to have someone there to protect you. The fact that they're even pushing that message is such an indictment against the system. You'd think that a military base would be one place where every soldier is safe.
Kors: Whitley's office also created videos and posters aimed at male soldiers who were considering raping other soldiers, or pressing them for sex when they're drunk. The campaign's slogan was "Ask her when she's sober."
Dick: Awful. That was astonishing. That they were putting that on poster, it just shows how clueless they were. It's as if they were living a time warp.
Kors: Part of what's so impressive about your film is the language. Your film is about the rape of soldiers. The Pentagon now calls that Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, the same way they blunted the pain of shell shock by transforming it into "operational exhaustion" and then finally "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder," or PTSD. So many journalists buy into these acronyms. The public sees a headline about "MST," they have no idea what that is, and they move on.
Dick: I think that's very true, especially with MST. When the issue is generations of raped soldiers, people are shocked. The military can counter that shock by using "MST." It's one way to keep the issue away from a wider audience. This is information they did not want to get out to the public.
Kors: I spoke with Jessica Hinves [of the Air Force, who shares her story in the film]. She said that after she reported being raped, she was threatened with a pre-existing "personality disorder" discharge, which would deny her a lifetime of disability and medical benefits. I spent five years reporting on phony PD discharges. CNN also did a great piece about female soldiers who faced that fraudulent discharge after they reported being sexually assaulted.
Dick: Oh yes, I know about personality disorder. I saw that diagnosis raised in many cases. Soldiers who report being raped face all kinds of reprisals, which often cause greater trauma than the rape itself. To be raped, then accused of having this pre-existing disorder, which denies you almost all of your benefits, it's unfair to women and men who have gone through a terrible trauma to begin with.
Kors: I'm glad you mentioned male victims. Your film features some poignant interviews with male soldiers who were raped during their service.
Dick: Yes. The trauma there, I've never seen anything like it. It takes decades for most male soldiers to admit that they were assaulted. The trauma becomes an ongoing battle. One of the soldiers we interviewed, recently he checked himself into the hospital because he was afraid he would commit suicide.
Kors: That's terrible.
Dick: The military is the ultimate macho culture. Men are expected to be "Army strong," which is one reason why so many of the male soldiers stay silent. If there is an invisible war, the male victims are the most invisible.
Kors: The suicide stories in the film are heartbreaking. The soldiers really opened up to you.
Dick: They did. Mike Matthews [of the Air Force] talks about trying to poison himself in his garage, with the exhaust fumes from his car. His dog kept scratching at the door, and for a minute he thought about bringing the dog into the garage with him. He hesitated and thought, "Wait, why am I killing a defenseless dog?" Then he thought, "Wait, why am I killing myself?"
Kors: Kori Cioca too, who reads an old suicide note and talks about the plan she had to overdose before finding out that she was pregnant. Your film brings in these soldiers' families Mike's wife, Kori's husband, seaman Hannah Sewell's father and shows how their pain affects the whole family.
Dick: Yes, we wanted to show that these traumas are not contained. When soldiers are raped and the military turns its back on them, everyone is affected: spouses, parents, the victims' children.
Kors: You did decide to leave one group off-screen: the rapists. I know that's made many viewers angry. They say you gave them the gift of anonymity, a luxury the victims didn't enjoy. I know from your earlier films, like Outrage and This Film Is Not Yet Rated, that you have no qualms about putting people on camera who don't want to be there. So why leave the perpetrators off-screen?
Dick: We did a lot of research on the individual perpetrators. But we did not want this to become a story about five or six perpetrators. We wanted to keep our focus on the system, the procedures the military is using to handle rape. By not going into the perpetrators' specific stories, we could keep our focus on the systemic problem.
Kors: The film is reaching the upper echelons of Washington. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film.
Dick: He did.
Kors: What's it going to take to get the commander-in-chief to see the film?
Dick: We're making multiple efforts to get it to him. I understand why Obama wouldn't watch the movie during the campaign. But now he has a chance to make changes, as commander-in-chief and by motivating Congress.
Kors: And I know Congress is taking some first steps. The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing in January on sexual assault and invited two victims to testify. But it seems like the military doesn't want to listen. At that hearing, high-ranking officials from the Air Force testified first. Jessica Hinves was there. She told me that as soon as those officials completed their testimony, they stood up and walked out. They did not wait around to hear the victims speak.
Dick: That's absolutely disgusting. It's the wrong message to send. In public the military is saying they understand the situation, and they're concerned about the victims. But if you're honestly concerned about the victims, the most important thing you can do is listen to them.
Kors: Why can't soldiers take their cases to the police? If commanders aren't listening, surely the police would.
Dick: Most of these rapes occur on military bases. So the police defer to the military command. In these communities, the civilian police are often former military, so they're predisposed to give deference to the officials at the base. Most victims don't go to the civilian police either. In the military, the message is drilled home from the very beginning: we take care of our own.
Kors: I see.
Dick: Even within the base, there's an incredible fear of going outside the chain of command. If your commander assaulted you, the last thing you're going to do is report the rape to his superior. Otherwise there could be severe consequences for your career. For commanders receiving a report of rape, there's pressure on them to stay silent too. If they report that an assault occurred in their unit, under their command, it's going to make them look bad.
Kors: Which is why you think rape cases need to be taken away from the regular chain of command.
Dick: Absolutely. With a commander, there's a basic conflict of interest. Impartial justice is enshrined in our constitution, including access to an impartial jury. These are soldiers who are willing to give their lives to defend our constitution. And yet they don't have access to its rights.
Kors: You started NotInvisible.org, a coalition to raise awareness of military sexual assault. Is there anything that civilians can do to support the cause?
Kors: If you win the Oscar, you'll be standing in front of over 100 million people. What message do you want to send?
Dick: My message is: this is our military, our fellow citizens. They're putting their lives on the line for us. It's up to us to make sure that the men and women who have been sexually assaulted are not invisible anymore.
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