Thirty-four women and men appear on camera in the documentary “Invisible War,” which opens in theatres June 22, to discuss being raped in the military. Statistics flash on the screen: 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted while serving in the United States military. An estimated 500,000 women have been assaulted in the last 20 years. In fiscal year 2009, 3,230 women reported sexual assault, and the Department of Defense estimates that 80 percent of women never report — meaning their own numbers indicate 16,150 women were assaulted that year. An estimated one percent of male servicemembers are sexually assaulted in the military each year, or around 20,000 men.
And in 2010, only 175 rapists did time.
With numbers like that, and more than a dozen of current and former investigators, JAG officers and military psychiatrists who appear on camera to detail the utter, sometimes willful inability of commanders or the Department of Defense to address the widespread epidemic of sexual assault in the military, it’s hard to avoid drawing one conclusion: the military would far rather let rapists serve than protect the women who do.
Producer Amy Ziering told Raw Story, “This is a chronic, systemic across-the-board condition that we need to address on a daily basis,” but, she added, “The way it’s reported typically is these one-off incidents in isolation.” Her hope, she said, it that “it helps the military see it as a chronic problem.”
One can hardly watch director Kirby Dick’s film without seeing the patterns that emerge. Women (and men) report being drugged at “mandatory” social events and waking up raped; women and men discuss waking up in the middle of the night to rapists in their beds; they detail brutal assaults that left them with long-term health consequences that the Veterans Administration takes years to treat. And then there’s the PTSD: women who are sexually assaulted in the military have higher PTSD rates than men who served in combat. Multiple survivors who appear in the film detail their struggles with PTSD and their subsequent suicide attempts.
But its not just the patterns of sexual assault that Dick’s film documents: it’s the patterns of commanders that, when they themselves aren’t doing the raping, seek to cover up assaults by forcing women to retract reports or punishing them for reporting in the first place. The survivors in the film tell of being charged with adultery because their rapists were married, of being threatened with demotions for making “false reports.” Investigators and lawyers talk of “witch hunts” of victims, of being forced to interrogate victims until, in one investigator’s words, “I got the truth out of her.” Another said that rape cases were never assigned to female investigators and, when she asked why, she was told that, “We couldn’t see what was ‘really going on’ because we ‘always took the woman’s side.’”
One commander, who had three victims report being raped under his command in a week, called the victims into his office and demanded to know how they coordinated it and if they thought it was a “game.” He never interviewed the rapists.
Ziering said, “The military needs to own their problem, to acknowledge that it is a problem, and to deal with it in a systemic way.” She added, “These are not unique cases or anonymous women, but symptoms of a chronic condition that the military needs to address.”
She said, “We know that if they really wanted to address it with the same vigor and force with which they address our enemies, they could really effect change and they could even be a model for society at large.”
But after watching nearly three dozen survivors recount their assaults and their subsequent abuse by the system for reporting, and being treated to historical footage from the Tailhook investigation (1991), the Aberdeen Proving Ground incident (1996) in which 30 women reported rapes, and the Air Force Academy scandal (2003), in which 142 women’s rape reports were swept under the rug over the course of 10 years, one is forced to, in fact, question whether the military does really want to address the chronic and ongoing problem of the rapists in its ranks.
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Megan Carpentier is the executive editor of Raw Story. She previously served as an associate editor at Talking Points Memo; the editor of news and politics at Air America; an editor at Jezebel.com; and an associate editor at Wonkette. Her published works include pieces for the Washington Post, the Washington Independent, Ms Magazine, RH Reality Check, the Women's Media Center, On the Issues, the New York Press, Bitch and Women's eNews.
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