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“The Invisible War”: Outing one of America’s best kept secrets

Click on the image for a link
to view “The Invisible War” film

 “[In the U.S. military], we see a guy get five years for drugs and two weeks for rape.”

Earlier this fall, I was invited to a private screening of a documentary film called “The Invisible War.” This film was chosen as the Winner of the Audience Award at this year’s  2012 Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering (both Emmy-nominated documentary filmmakers),  “The Invisible War” was created to expose “one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military.”

For a soundbite, this film explores the personal narratives of women who were sexually assaulted and/or raped during their service in the U.S. military. This issue proved to go far beyond the lack of processed assault reports —a similar problem for the wider population of civilian women who raped outside of the military environment . One of the main issues that the film exposes is the faulty investigation and prosecution process after reports are made. This is due to the fact that the process is left in the hands of the survivors’ military unit commanders who are more often than not friends with assaulters (frequently senior officers, supervisors, etc.)  or assaulters themselves. Convictions of these assailants are rare and even if they are found guilty, punishments are so light that they could be seen as merely “slap on the wrists.” According to one survivor, she realized that the most commonly implemented method of handling the situation is to “eject the victim and keep the perpetrator.”

To make matters worse, U.S. veteran survivors are continually denied the benefits to pay for injuries caused by the sexual abuse. Instead of punishing the assailants or trying to help the injured survivors, victim-blaming is another commonly accepted practice within the military (accusing them using various phrases like: what was she wearing, she was asking for it, she should’ve expected it when entering into a male-majority environment, etc.). No severe consequences or hardly any disciplinary actions are given to these men for these atrocious (usually multiple) acts on military women. Thus, the cycle has continued for years and has been kept hidden by the higher male military officials and commanders in fear of shame or serious punishment. The idealism and complete trust in the military need to be reconsidered because there is a serious disjunction in the system if the very men who are enlisted and enthroned as protectors of our nation are the same soldiers who are raping our female soldiers. The unjust prosecution structure of our U.S. military system allowed for this war to have remained dreadfully invisible, until now.

The urgency, importance and critical matter of this film demanded responses from both lawmakers and viewers from the general public. For example, Kori Cioca, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran denied benefits to pay for a face injury from a military sexual assault, was offered entire medical cost coverage by a viewer who saw the film. Like this viewer, the majority of responses to the film was that of shock, sadness and compassion. Thankfully even some actions were taken even if it did only create minor changes to the currently warped system.

According to sources on Wikipedia:

“Following The Invisible War’s initial allegations of widespread harassment and sexual assault at Marine Barracks Washington, eight women filed suit against military leaders for maintaining an environment that tolerates rapists while silencing survivors.”

“On April 16, 2012, [Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta issued a directive ordering all sexual assault cases to be handled by senior officers at the rank of colonel or higher. This effectively ended the practice of commanders prosecuting sexual assault cases from within their own units. Panetta later told one of the film’s producers that watching The Invisible War contributed to his decision to revise this policy.The filmmakers applauded these changes but said that the Pentagon needed to take further steps, requiring that investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases be handled outside of the military chain of command.”

I’ve always harbored simultaneous feelings of appreciation and sadness about watching eye and heart-opening documentary films. The appreciation stems from the labor of these filmmakers—and even more so for the courage of these participants who are willing to be featured on camera—to create films with the purpose of bring more awareness about these controversial and heart-wrenching issues that we’d normally prefer to skim over when seen in text or when brought up in conversation. However, the sadness arises from the ending of these films that always seem to feature a website or petition of some sort in order to stir viewers to take action to help those in need. I always wondered how far these films when to influence the actual situation and how much of it went to just more intellectual societal awareness. The results of this film, although the changes were minor, brought me more hope about the positive and real influence the film industry can have to not just change complex ideas/issues in theory, but to change actual individuals’ lives in today’s world.

For more resources:

Official movie trailer: The Invisible War —Trailer

Full streaming movie: Source 1 or Source 2

Interview on ABC’s The View: Part 1 and Part 2

Interviews of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering: BYOD video interview and Huff Post article

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