Kori Cioca joined the Coast Guard to serve her country. But instead of protecting her homeland, she ended up needing to protect herself from her supervisor, who harassed, assaulted, and raped her—and went unpunished. Today Cioca struggles to earn benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover the medical difficulties that resulted from her rape.
The Invisible War chronicles the stories of Cioca and more than a dozen other veterans (mostly women) who were raped during their service. Setting these stories in the context of the military's history of sex scandals and sexual assault reform, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering's goal is clear: to initiate change in military policy and culture. To that end, the 2012 documentary has been successful: Within days of viewing the film in April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced major changes to military sexual assault policies.
The documentary explores four systemic issues related to military sexual assault: the high percentage of servicewomen being sexually assaulted (the filmmakers estimate about 20 percent), the low percentage of assailants being appropriately punished; the retaliation victims often experience; and military leadership's inept response. Twenty percent is a higher estimate than the general rate of sexual assault, though it's not inordinately higher (the general U.S.estimate is 1 in 6 women). Of course, sexual assault statistics are inherently imprecise because of low reporting and variances in how it is defined. The filmmakers posit that the military has a higher rate because of its pyramid power structure; military rank comes with power and automatic trust because soldiers are taught to simply obey.
In my nine years as a West Point cadet and U.S. Army officer (including an Iraq deployment), I never once felt in danger of being assaulted by a fellow soldier. I heard plenty of sexual innuendo and jokes, but viewed that as part of the male-dominated culture. While deployed to Iraq, I walked countless times through the living quarters by myself in the dark. Was I oblivious? Perhaps, but I find it hard to discount the sense of safety I felt around my brothers-in-arms.
Still, The Invisible War clearly shows that accused rapists in the military are rarely prosecuted, and the ones who are rarely serve jail time appropriate for their crime. This is due to how the military adjudicates sexual assault charges. Previously, unit commanders decided whether to court martial a soldier and also could choose to dismiss the charges or assign administrative punishments. This created a conflict of interest, since the commander would know both the victim and the accused. In many of the cases in the documentary, this resulted in no prosecution of the offenders and retaliation against the victims (often through adultery charges or refusing promotion). One of Panetta's announced changes was to move the decision for court martial from unit commanders to higher in the chain of command.
Military sexual assault isn't a new problem. It has been on and off Congress's radar and the public's conscience since at least the Tailhook scandal of 1991. Some changes were implemented after the media attention, but they were shallow. In 2005, the military created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. It launched an ad campaign that was poorly received because it appeared to encourage victim blaming. New reporting procedures were developed that provided victims more options for how they reported incidents. I recall other changes during my service, including attending required annual training on prevention and reporting, and assigning a unit sexual assault response coordinator. These changes brought more attention to the sexual assault problem, but in my experience, they were received with apathy.
Thankfully, Panetta's announcement goes much further than past efforts. It includes creating special victims units, retaining records centrally, increasing investigation and response training, giving victims the option to transfer bases, and moving the decision to prosecute out of the hands of unit commanders. These changes strike at the heart of the issue. However, servicewomen aren't the only ones affected by the military's sexual assault problem. I remember a soldier whose wife was raped while our unit was deployed to Iraq. Those cases are also left for the military chain of command to handle, yet they present a similar conflict of interest. Panetta's changes are long-needed, but they might fall short of protecting military families.
It is easy to develop a negative outlook on the military after watching The Invisible War. However, viewers must remember that the documentary presents only one side of women's military experiences. I believe the vast majority of military women have positive experiences that don't include sexual assault. The film implies that no woman should enter military service because it is equivalent to accepting rape. This is a deceptive picture. The decision to enter the military is one that should be thoroughly examined, but it should not revolve solely around the possibility of rape.
The Invisible War is a poignant rallying cry for change. Sexual assault is a sin issue that is threatening the cohesiveness of the military family. The Bible warns about letting this sin fester. Examine the story of David's daughter, Tamar. Tamar was raped by her brother Amnon, an event that was swept under the rug. Tamar's brother, Absalom, told her to keep quiet and not worry about it (2 Sam. 13:20). Amnon suffered no apparent consequences. Similarly, servicewomen are being assaulted by their brothers-in-arms, but attackers are facing minimal punishment and victims are being told to "suck it up." Tamar's story has a clear lesson about what happens to families that ignore the sin of rape. David's family was torn apart: Tamar desolate, Amnon murdered, and Absalom consumed with anger and banished as a murderer. If we are to heed the Bible's wisdom, sexual assault in the military (and society) must be addressed thoroughly, in a way that punishes the evildoers and protects the victims.
DeAnna Acker is a West Point graduate, a former U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer, and an Iraq War veteran. She has also worked as an inner-city school teacher and is currently a freelance writer.
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