"You always have protection with Jesus," former seawoman Kori Cioca tells the camera, brandishing the long, serrated hunting knife she always keeps in her purse or pocket.
"But sometimes, you need just a little bit more."
Ms. Cioca, who left the U.S. Coast Guard after being stalked, beaten and raped by her supervisor, is one of 36 veterans from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force documented in The Invisible War, an investigation into the epidemic of rape -- often by serial offenders -- in the U.S. military.
Directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick and produced by Emmy-nominated filmmakers Amy Ziering and Tanner Barklow, The Invisible War, now in theaters, has already won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Using a thorough screening of Department of Defense Statistics and rigorous interviews with rape survivors, their families, senior Pentagon officials and members of Congress, the film breaks new ground on the systematic and predatory nature of rape taking place in military compounds right here on U.S. soil.
A major aim of The Invisible War, Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said in a telephone interview, is to close the information gap between high-ranking military officials and actual victims of rape by conveying, through film, the emotional and psychological toll of sexual assault.
"We've had discussions with extremely high-ranking members of the military who actually thanked us for showing them the film because it offered a perspective they hadn't had before," said Mr. Dick. "Before this film, I don't think people understood the systemic nature of rape in the military and the systemic nature of reprisals against those who report it."
In 2010 alone, the military experienced a staggering 19,000 sex crimes. According to Department of Defense statistics, more than one-fifth of all active-duty female soldiers have been sexually assaulted, leaving women who have been raped in the military with a higher rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than that of men in combat.
"For a (sexual) predator," says Brigadier General Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist with the U.S. Army, a relatively closed system like the military is "a prime target-rich environment."
Today, the occurrence of sexual assault in the U.S. military is almost double that of American civilians. These figures are not limited to women. According to the Service Women's Action Network, 46 percent of the roughly 108,000 veterans who experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in 2010 were men. In The Invisible War, Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering document some of their stories.
Artfully weaving together the testimonials of each survivor, the film juxtaposes the patriotic and idealistic reasons each chose to serve in the military against the devastating reality that the system to which they had devoted their lives failed to punish those who brutalized them.
To date, only 13.5 percent of all victims -- both male and female -- actually report incidents of sexual assault, according to Department of Defense estimates. Of those reported, less than 10 percent are prosecuted. The Department of Defense also does not maintain a registry of sex offenders, allowing rapists -- including repeat offenders -- who leave the military to enter the civilian workforce without recrimination.
"Without a doubt, most of these rapes are committed by serial perpetrators who've been allowed to operate in a target-rich environment unchecked by the military," said Mr. Dick.
The Invisible War reveals how the disciplinary process, as it stands, has fostered a culture within the military in which sexual assault against a victim on active duty is considered an "occupational hazard" of serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The military's current disciplinary process -- structured into the 'chain of command' -- means victims of assault must often report the crime to either the perpetrator himself or to the perpetrator's friends or colleagues, who may have a conflict of interest. As a result, rape survivors often have to keep working with the individuals who assaulted them. When they do report the crime, they are often disbelieved, shunned, harassed or threatened with reprisals, according to Ms. Ziering.
"The thing that makes me the most angry is... the commanders that are complicit in covering up everything that happened," says former Marine Ariana Klay, who was raped by a senior officer and his friend while serving in the prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. "The actions of my seniors, both in the assault and in the ensuing investigation, have really destroyed me."
More often than not, Mr. Dick, Ms. Ziering and Mr. Barklow came across cases of unmarried rape survivors who were charged with adultery because the man who assaulted them was married.
When Ms. Klay, whose assailant was eventually convicted of adultery for the rape, first told her battalion executive officer about being humiliated and harassed, she was told "to do what a Marine officer should do... ignore it and move on."
The man who raped Airman 1st Class Jessica Hinves, who served for a decade in the U.S. Air Force before being discharged in 2011 after being diagnosed with PTSD, was awarded "Airman of the Year" during the investigation into her assault.
It is the military's investigatory and disciplinary system that Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said they want senior Defense officials to change. Unit commanders, they said, should no longer be responsible for disciplining perpetrators of sexual assault. What is "imperative," assert the filmmakers, is for the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes to be removed from the chain of command completely.
"The rules already exist in the military. It's just a question of making sure they're imposed impartially and that cases are adjudicated independently," Ms. Ziering said. "When you keep it within the chain of command, you remove that impartiality."
Many of those depicted in The Invisible War are from families with a long military tradition, or have a spouse who serves in the U.S. forces.
The film shows Sergeant Major Jerry Sewell, currently on active duty in Afghanistan, break down in tears as he recounts to the camera how he had to tell his daughter, Hannah, who was raped by a fellow Navy cadet while training in Illinois, that she could still consider herself a virgin since her rapist had taken something she never chose to give.
The perceived helplessness of Hannah's father, like that of other family members and loved ones filmed in The Invisible War, sheds light on how the impact and anguish of sexual assault permeates far beyond its victims.
"Most men in the military and most commanders are horrified by this," said Mr. Dick. "The people who are, for the most part, higher up the chain of command and have the power to change policy don't have a real understanding of the psychological damage endured by survivors of assault."
That is precisely what The Invisible War has started to change.
Within months of its premiere in January at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the film reached the attention of high-ranking Pentagon officials. Through a series of backchannel screenings organized with help from the wives of a number of high-ranking U.S. generals and some of Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering's social connections, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed the film in April.
Forty-eight hours after watching The Invisible War, Mr. Panetta transferred all sexual assault investigations and the decision to prosecute away from unit commanders up to the rank of colonel. He also announced the creation of a Special Victims Unit for each branch of the US armed forces.
Though this is a significant first step, the military has "a long way to go" to ensure fairness in the investigatory process and achieve justice for victims of sexual assault, according to the filmmakers.
"These women had wonderful experiences in the military until they were raped. But even after they were forced out, they still wished they had a career in the military," said Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering. "It's unconscionable for these women... to be blamed, castigated and discharged simply for reporting the crime."