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“The Invisible War” Aims to Make Rape Epidemic in the Military Visible

BY KRISTEN KING|

Award winning Documentary "The Invisible War"
Award winning Documentary “The Invisible War”

Students of Brooklyn College, Kingsborough, and Medgar Evers filled the Jeffersons-Williams Lounge in the Student Center on Tuesday to watch the screening of “The Invisible War,” an investigative documentary on rape within the United States Military.

The BC Women’s Center, The Veteran’s Affair and Counseling Center, and The Division of Student Affairs sponsored the screening, which was followed by a discussion lead by a representative from the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

The film, from Academy Award nominated director Kirby Dick, has won Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for an Academy Award, and Best Feature by the International Documentary Association. “The Invisible War” focuses on the true stories of several women, including one man, who were raped during their tenure in the service along with their struggles to seek justice and restore their lives.

Women make up roughly 15 percent of the armed forces, according to records from the Department of Defense. According to annual reports by the DoD, there were a total of 3,158 reports of sexual assault in the military in 2010, and this number is believed to only represent 13.5 percent of total assaults. This would mean that the total number of rape and sexual assault in the military is actually in excess of 19,000. The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, an organization within the DoD that oversees sexual assault policy, reported that out of the 3,158 reports, only 529 went to trial. A more recent report from the DoD details that 3,192 reports of sexual assault were documented in 2011. Of these cases, only 489 were court-martialed.

The film begins with each of the victims describing their inspiration for joining the military. Most of the women found the prospect of the military inspiring, as an opportunity that they and their families could be proud of. They spoke of the camaraderie the military offered and the chance to “keep up with the guys,” said Jessica Hinves, a victim and member of the U.S. Air Force. Many of the women received awards for their service and served upwards of six years often seeking a career in the military.

U.S. Coast Guard seamen Kori Cioca was raped while stationed in Saginawa, Michigan
U.S. Coast Guard seamen Kori Cioca was raped while stationed in Saginawa, Michigan

While the film followed the struggles of multiple women, the journey of former U.S. Coast Guard Seamen Kori Cioca was followed more intimately. Cioca was stationed in Saginawa, Michigan when she was brutally raped by her commanding officer. The sexual attack came after months of harassment. She would often receive phone calls from her commanding officer at late night hours after he’d been out drinking or walk into her quarters to find him sleeping in her bed. During the attack, Cioca was struck in the face after she had attempted to call for help, with a blow that dislocated her jaw. She has been on a soft diet for five years that she describes on film to include foods like Jell-O and mashed potatoes. When Cioca tried to report the harassment prior to her rape, the other officers discouraged her, inciting that it was weak to complain about someone because you did not like them.

Like most of the women in the film, the stories they share are emotionally powerful and difficult to tell. Trina McDonald was drugged and raped while stationed in Alaska during her time in the U.S. Navy. She recalled feeling immediately objectified when she arrived at the male dominant base. Among the stories arose a theme of violent and physical threats, a deterrence to speak up, and a broken system of prevention and justice. “They made it very, very clear that if I’d said anything that they would kill me,” said McDonald.

Trina McDonald recalled being drugged and raped while stationed with the U.S. Navy in Alaska
Trina McDonald recalled being drugged and raped while stationed with the U.S. Navy in Alaska

One particular victim referred to the process after speaking out as a series of “witch-hunting” interrogations. Navigating the chain of command to report a rape is one of the biggest issues. Often, when the perpetrator is a commanding officer, the next in line of command is a friend of the officer. Female officers are commonly left off the cases for being “too sympathetic.”

Senate currently battles with decisions to adjust the “convening authority” of military commanders, which ultimately gives them the power to nullify convictions. In a recent case, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, was convicted of the aggravated sexual assault of a 49-year-old woman. He was sentenced to one year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force, only to have that ruling overturned by Wilkerson’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, on the grounds of reasonable doubt. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the case to be reviewed.

The film, no doubt, demonstrates the need for military judicial reform, and a timely one at that. In attempts to protect one another, investigators are often “stone-walled” by members of the military—a practice where members simply don’t speak. The hour and 37-minute film often drew gasps and angered comments from the audience. Especially after viewers were shocked to hear that the case of Cioca v. Rumsfeld was dismissed, a case that represented Cioca and 27 other victims and alleged that former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld violated the soldiers’ constitutional rights when they failed to curtail widespread rape within the military.

Often, victims felt as if the way the military handled the rape was worse than the rape itself. Cioca is shown making numerous calls to the Department of Veteran Affairs to seek out the status of her disability case, to which her calls often went unanswered with little success or help from the counselors she received. The missing discs in Cioca’s mouth require surgery, and the audience reacted in dismay when the VA denied her claims because of her short tenure in the Coast Guard. She’s been prescribed an abundance of drugs to handle physical pain, anxiety, and PTSD, some combinations that have been shown to result in death.

An anonymous survey cited in the film reported that a surprising percentage of recruits have a history of sexual assault prior to enlisting. The Marine Barracks Washington was displayed as hotbed for sexual misconduct and a fraternity-like environment that encouraged excessive drinking and partying, in which many cases females were forced to join. “In good faith I cannot recommend anybody to join,” said Lt. Ariana Klay of the U.S. Marine Corps in tears. “I would not wish that on anyone.” Klay dedicated nine years of her life to the service and served at war as well. A senior officer and his friend raped Klay after a weekly drinking event at Marine Barracks Washington.

harass14n-3-webAmid horrifying statistics and unsatisfying answers from government officials, the film hopes to be a successful push towards reform in military judicial systems, and the overall attitude and awareness about sexual assault and rape in the military. 33 percent of women in the service did not report their rape because the person to report it to was a friend of the rapist, while 25 percent didn’t report their rape because the person to report to was the rapist. A senate hearing on Mar. 13 was lead by a very passionate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, at which she grilled senior officers on statistics like the ones listed above.

Organizations like SWAN are working hard with large groups of victims and local and state senators to make the push for legislation. “Congress is very differential,” said a SWAN representative. SWAN encourages the public to stay aware of legislation, to continue to seek legislation, and to make your voice heard.

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