Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.
Sexual violence is a prevalent problem within every community and environment. Each year thousands of people -- females, males and transgender individuals -- are impacted by rape or sexual assault. Across different communities, survivors often encounter similar obstacles and barriers. The social stigma attached to rape and sexual assault can cause survivors to feel shame, self-blame or guilt for what they experienced, and many survivors also find it extremely difficult to report and seek resources because of taboos, fear of repercussions from friends and family, the need for privacy, and a variety of other barriers. In these respects and many others, the military is no different than other communities. The Department of Defense estimates that over 19,000 service members, both male and female, are raped or sexually assaulted each year, however, only about 3,000 are reported.
Despite those similarities, key differences exist around the issue of military sexual assault. The structure and organizations of the military are very different than in the civilian world and it can be difficult to navigate, or even understand, the options, resources, and legal process unless you are directly involved with the system. Despite my previous years of work and education in the anti-sexual violence field, when I started as a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for the U.S. Navy, I entered a new world with its own language, processes, values, and customs. In order to do my job effectively, I had to learn a how to maneuver in this new world. I had to learn a new legal code, how to operate within the chain of command, and how to interact with the different players involved. It was complicated and confusing to explain to people outside of the military the structure and barriers that many survivors faced in order to make a report.
The people who I've talked with at film screenings and the countless blog posts and comments that I read after The Invisible War's release had similar reactions and responses: there were feelings of overwhelming anger and frustration toward the system and feelings of compassion and support for the survivors who told their stories. People expected that the military would have the structure and the resources to protect and provide for their own service members. The high number of incidents of sexual violence, which are predominantly perpetrated by fellow service members, runs counter to the assumptions that many people hold about the military: namely, that it protects the people giving their time, efforts, and lives to defend and serve this country.
In the military, one's unit is akin to one's family as building relationships, establishing trust, and supporting one another is integral to cohesiveness and successfully accomplishing the mission at hand. Therefore sexual violence in a unit has effects similar to incest. Your unit is supposed to be composed of people you can trust unconditionally and rely on in life-threatening situations. To have that trust shattered can destroy the entire unit. One of the key shifts that the military (and any community) needs to make is shifting the energy to stopping that sexual violence from occurring in the first place, rather than silencing or shunning the survivor who experienced it.
One of the benefits of The Invisible War is that it was able to bring both military culture and the issue of military sexual assault into a setting and format where the general population could understand the colossal problem of military sexual assault, where the system is lacking, and the major issues that survivors face. In addition to raising awareness and understanding, the film was able to inspire and propel people to action.
As an organization, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center has worked to promote awareness around The Invisible War and to provide services both for military survivors and providers. BARCC has supported several screenings of the documentary at a variety of locations, including community screenings, a military base, and at colleges. Our established relationships with neighboring military bases allow for the opportunities to provide resources to military survivors and assist military providers with trainings and other awareness and prevention work. We are grateful for the opportunities and discussions that have been created by The Invisible War and look forward to the additional work and efforts we can make on this important issue.
Many aspects of the military system have to be changed from within and therefore it can be frustrating for people who want to take action. The Invisible War provides tangible and feasible action items for people to undertake. Even in the short time since the film's release, these action steps have evolved to reflect the ongoing work and progress that has already taken place. Continuing efforts and ways to become involved can be accessed via The Invisible War's Facebook and Twitter accounts and through their website that references current petitions and legislative items.