Mitt Romney made headlines a few weeks back when he failed to mention the war in Afghanistan during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. At the Democratic Convention, President Obama and other Democratic surrogates attempted to redirect attention to military issues, including the current war and supporting veterans and their families.
But there's another struggle -- an invisible war -- that has been going on for much longer than the war in Afghanistan. And no one, at either convention, made a single mention of it.
Last year, according to estimates from the Department of Defense itself, 19,000 men and women were sexually assaulted while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Over the last several decades, more than half a million service members have been sexually assaulted while defending America.
The men and women of our Armed Services sign up to put their lives on the line to serve their country. And yet, a woman serving in the military is more likely to be sexually assaulted than killed by enemy fire. Just over three thousand sexual assaults were reported last year. But even the DoD admits that number is just the tip of the iceberg, estimating that 86 percent of sexual assaults go completely unreported. And male service members are less likely by half to report their assault than their female counterparts are, making this much more than "just" a women's issue.
In January, we premiered our documentary, The Invisible War, at the Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award. In the past few weeks, we screened The Invisible War at both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions.
These special presentations were two of many similar screenings we've held, in Washington and elsewhere, in order to get the film into the hands of key decision makers. We've screened it for members of congress, military leaders, and a range of different advocates, to an overwhelmingly positive response. We've shown the film to Democrats and to Republicans, because protecting our soldiers is not a partisan issue -- it's an American issue, with real repercussions on human rights and national security as well.
At both conventions, political leaders took to the stage with everyday Americans who, for various reasons, put their support behind one candidate or the other. But we didn't hear from anyone like Jessica Hinves, who was raped while serving in the military.
Jessica joined the Air Force because she comes from a military family, but was forced into early medical retirement after she was raped. A commander who'd held his post for only four days dismissed Jessica's case, despite a yearlong investigation, saying her attacker simply hadn't acted as a gentleman but shouldn't be punished.
In April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took an important first step when he rolled out some new policies to combat military sexual assault by moving the decision to prosecute further up the chain of command. But these changes simply are not enough. Secretary Panetta's new policies wouldn't have changed anything about Jessica's situation. According to the new rules, the rank of Jessica's commander, a colonel empowered him to dismiss her case, despite completely lacking any kind of legal training or adequate education regarding sexual assault investigation and prosecution.
At every level of the military, our commanders and our troops must understand that sexual assault in the military is a very real issue, that such acts will not be tolerated, and that survivors will be supported. That's why we're asking the Department of Defense to use The Invisible War as a training tool for all military officers. Our service members should not have to expose themselves to sexual assault or sexual harassment to protect our country. Our nation should be unwilling to accept rape as an occupational hazard of military service.
The presidential candidates have the ability to create a much-needed discussion around this issue on a national level. President Obama and Governor Romney have repeatedly stated their support for our troops. But as president, supporting our troops means protecting them from any and all harm, to the best of your ability, as commander-in-chief. That includes shielding our troops from sexual assault.
Now is the time for both candidates to take a stand and prove that their support for our troops is substantive and all encompassing.
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