22 July 2013


Last week I watched a film which remains seared into my thoughts.  The Invisible War is a 2012 documentary about sexual assault in the military.  The tone is thoughtful and understated ~ there is no need for sensationalism, because the facts and the emotional struggles of the survivors speak for themselves.

The film features interviews with veterans from multiple branches of the United States Armed Forces who recount the events surrounding their assaults.  Their stories share common themes, such as the lack of recourse to an impartial justice system, reprisals against survivors instead of perpetrators being held accountable, the absence of adequate emotional and physical care for survivors, the unhindered advancement of perpetrators' careers, and the forced expulsion of survivors from service.

Interspersed with these first-person testimonies are interviews with advocates, journalists, mental health professionals, active duty and retired generals, Department of Defense officials, and members of the military justice system.  The film also includes footage which documents the veterans' lives and continuing struggles in the aftermath of their assaults.

Past incidents of sexual abuse recounted in the film include the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal.  The Invisible War uses these examples to argue that the military has consistently made empty promises to address its high rate of sexual assault.  The survivors and advocates featured in the film call for changes to the way the military handles sexual assault, such as shifting prosecution away from unit commanders, who often are either friends with assailants or are assailants themselves.

Here is the film's home page, which includes the official trailer to the movie.

Below is a sampling of facts about sexual assault in the military, featured in the film ~ all statistics are from US government studies ~

Over 20% of female veterans have been
sexually assaulted while serving.

At least 1% of male veterans have been
sexually assaulted while serving.

More than 86% of service members
do not report their assault.

A Navy study found that 15% of incoming recruits
had attempted or committed rape before entering the military ~
twice the percentage of the equivalent civilian population.

Today a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is
more likely to be raped by a fellow service member
than to be killed in the line of fire.

Women who have been raped in the military
have a PTSD rate higher than men who've been in combat.

In units where sexual harassment is tolerated
incidents of rape triple.

33% of servicewomen didn't report their rape
because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist.

25% of servicewomen didn't report their rape
because the person to report to was the rapist.

Many of our closest NATO allies no longer allow
commanders to determine the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Of those rapes which are reported and brought to trial,
only 5% end in a conviction.
Of those, most are plea-bargained
down from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Fewer than one-third of convictions
result in imprisonment.

In December 2011, a lawsuit brought by rape survivors who appeared in this film was dismissed.  The court ruled that rape is an occupational hazard of military service.

Of those rape survivors ~

Five years after her attack, one survivor is still trying to get coverage for jaw surgery (for an injury inflicted during her attack) from the Veterans Administration.
  • Her assailant is still in the Coast Guard and lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
One survivor is pursuing her Masters Degree in Social Work to help survivors of military sexual assault.
  • Her assailant was court-martialed and found guilty only of adultery and indecent language.
One survivor is working for a corporation and lives in South Carolina.
  • Her assailant has recently been promoted to lieutenant colonel.
One [male] survivor and his wife are helping promote awareness of male military sexual assault.
  • He does not know the identity of his assailants or where they are today.
One survivor and her husband have a baby boy and are raising him in Virginia.
  • Her assailant is still in the Air Force and was awarded 'Airman of the Year' during her rape investigation.
One survivor's father is returning from Iraq after a one-year deployment.
  • Her assailant is still in the Navy and stationed three hours from her home in Kentucky.  
  • One survivor's assailant became a supervisor at a major U.S. corporation and sexually assaulted a female employee.  He was never charged and now lives in Queens, New York.


On April 14, 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched this film.  Two days later, he took the decision to prosecute away from unit commanders, and placed it with a trained independent counsel.

But this is not enough.  The military culture of rape must be addressed at every level of rank and command through education, and through firm and consistent prosecution of assailants.

I was so impressed by the quality and the experience of The Invisible War that I watched it a second time, a few days after the first viewing.  I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about our daughters and sons, wives and husbands, sisters and brothers serving in the military.  Then share the film with everyone you know.  Spread the word.

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