March 8, 2013 / News, Unity

The Invisible War: Breaking Silence about Sexual Assault in the Military


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.


An important documentary feature about the problem of rape in the military was nominated for an Academy Award but didn’t win.  I’m sure the winner is a good film but I admit I was rooting for The Invisible War for three reasons:  the winner gets a lot of attention and more people need to see this film; many people in the movie were very brave in speaking out about what happened to them and the award would have honored them too; and those involved in the production deserve commendations for their willingness to take on a tough topic.

Before the Academy awards were announced, I had the privilege of attending a screening of The Invisible War.  Following the screening, an impressive panel of speakers (Senator Richard Blumenthal, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Michele Flournoy, Kirby Dick (Director and Writer), Maria Cuomo Cole (Executive Producer), and Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, MD), moderated by Judy Woodruff, discussed the film and the problem.  Cassie Chew wrote an excellent blog on the PBS website detailing the discussion and highlighting some of the painfully graphic case studies from the film.

The intent of the film was to create a national dialogue about the raping of those who pledge to protect our country.  In many cases, and as documented in the film, the victims have been blamed or further persecuted when they have attempted to report the crimes.  Some were diagnosed with personality disorders and discharged without eligibility for benefits.

Two days after he viewed the film, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta directed military commanders to hand over sexual assault investigations to a higher-ranking colonel.  He also announced that a Special Victims Unit would be established by each branch of the armed forces.  While these actions represent steps toward exposing and appropriately punishing rapists, many feel more needs to be done.

At the Sundance Festival, the film broke the story of the harassment and sexual assaults at Marine Barracks Washington and it was covered by major news networks and organizations.  Director Kirby Dick and his producing partner Amy Ziering were inspired by “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” the 2001 article about women serving in Iraq.  Over 150 women were contacted and 70 of them interviewed for the film.

A few of the surprising facts that I learned from the film and panel discussion:

  • In 2011, 3,192 sexual assaults were reported.  Only 1,518 led to referrals for possible disciplinary action and only 191 military members were convicted at courts-martial.
  • 1% of the men in the military (20,000) were sexually assaulted in 2009
  • Sexual assault has a long-hidden history in the military
  • Military Sexual Trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among women veterans; combat trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among men.
  • 8% of military sexual assault cases are prosecuted.
  • In 2011, the VA spent almost $900 million on sexual assault-related healthcare expenditures ($10,880 per victim).

On March 13 a hearing will be held by the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).  A victims’ rights advocate, Sen. Gillibrand’s first hearing of the 113th Congress will include testimony from sexual assault survivors and military officials.

Awareness is an important part of the solution to this tragic problem.  Female victims of sexual assault in the military are surrounded by mostly male supervisors, and as clearly documented in the movie, the supervisors have often not only been unsupportive and critical of the victims, but sometimes are the rapists themselves.

While the historical treatment of the issue by the military has been one of covering up, Secretary Panetta’s actions toward resolving some of the reporting problems are good steps.  The producers of the film call upon the Department of Defense to change policy in order that all who are convicted of a sex crime while in the military are listed on the National Sex Offender Public Website.  They also call for the military to cease diagnosing victims of sexual assault with personality disorders and discharging them without being eligible for benefits.  And they ask for the Department of Defense to formally apologize to the men and women who have been sexually assaulted while in the military.

Unfortunately this film will be harder to find in theaters because it did not win the Academy Award.  Links for purchasing it are included on the film’s website.  Independent Lens on PBS will air the film on May 27, 2013.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.