Soldiers with invisible wounds

July 4, 2012

Helen Redmond reviews a new film about the plight of women soldiers who are sexually assaulted in the military--and how the military continues to fail them.

THE INVISIBLE War is a truly terrifying film about the U.S. military. It's not about the horror and suffering inflicted on the people of Afghanistan or Iraq. It's about the war on women soldiers by their "brothers in arms," who rape and physically assault them with staggering frequency and near impunity.

G.I. Joe, it turns out, is more of a threat to G.I. Jane than enemy bombs or bullets.

The stories of the women soldiers who are sexually assaulted are visceral and so outrageous you'll be stunned into tearful silence or bursts of screaming. And to learn that it's been going on for decades--and the Pentagon brass knows it and has been ignoring and covering it up--adds to the sense of fury.

The Tailhook sex-abuse scandal broke in 1991. At a Navy convention in Las Vegas, about 80 women were forced to walk through a gauntlet of 200 pilots who groped them, tore their clothes off and sexually assaulted them. Paula Coughlin was one of the women, and she explains in the film that when she reported the attack to her superior, he said, "That's what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunken aviators."

Kori Cioca interviewed in The Invisible War
Kori Cioca interviewed in The Invisible War

But the victim-blaming didn't end there. In a private meeting with Coughlin, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney told her, "Because of your complaint, I have had to remove the secretary of the Navy." Coughlin then met with President George H.W. Bush. He wept and said, "I can just imagine how your father feels."

Reforms were promised and zero-tolerance for sexual assault was proclaimed, but nothing changed: What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.

Kirby Dick, the director of The Invisible War, adds up the numbers that the military wants to ignore: In 2011, there were over 22,800 sexual assaults. Some 20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, and female soldiers aged 18 to 21 accounted for more than half of the victims. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is the leading cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for women veterans.

We learn from experts in Dick's film that the armed services are a "target-rich" environment for sex crimes and that women are the target.

Review: Documentary

The Invisible War, a documentary by Kirby Dick, Chain Camera Pictures.

WHAT IS it about military culture that makes it so dangerous for women? Acts of violence and aggression are glorified at all levels of society, from the White House to the battlefield. This acceptance of brutality and hyper-masculinity, coupled with women's status as sex objects, leads to male sexual assaults.

But men are not born this way. Everything about basic training forces young male soldiers to demean human beings, including women, who are seen as weak and unequal. Women are still not allowed to engage in combat.

The aim is to transform military recruits into obedient, unfeeling machines capable of killing, raping, torturing and humiliating. And this misogynist fraternity that the military creates demands a code of silence and vilification of victims. It's also important to note that men are also victims of MST.

Myths and lies about rape were used against the women soldiers featured in the film. Ariana Klay, a former Marine, was told that she provoked the assault because she wore make-up and skirts--which were part of her regulation uniform--and also because she jogged in shorts. Elle Helmer, also a former Marine, was raped after a night of forced drinking. Helmer had declined to go on the "pub crawl," but was told by her commanding officer that it was mandatory.

At every turn, women are set up by a series of inviolable rules, regulations and traditions that leave them vulnerable to sexual assault. When women report the abuse, the "good old boy" network closes ranks and puts them on trial. The women are accused of lying, face physical retaliation, including death, and are threatened with loss of rank and benefits.

None of those responsible for the rapes described in the film were prosecuted. One man was promoted, and another was given the military professional of the year award.

Kori Cioca's story is an unforgettable, stomach-churning visual document of everything that is wrong with the military, the Veterans Administration (VA) and the U.S. government. She is the Kevlar heart of The Invisible War. Dick's camera focuses on Cioca's facial expressions, as her tears of anger, pain and frustration put a human face on the statistics about sexual assault and its forgotten aftermath. We learn that Cioca always carries a knife and a cross in her purse.

Cioca was young, naïve and gung-ho when she joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 2005. She admits she was "hard for the guard." Cioca's dream of a military career was quickly smashed, however. Her commanding officer humiliated her (spitting in her face daily). He slapped her across the face, causing her excruciating pain, and he sexually harassed her for months.

One time, he stood at the side of her bed with an erection demanding sex. During the rape, he broke her jaw, causing Cioca permanent nerve damage; she can only eat soft food now.

The rape and assault resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and launched Cioca into a battle with the VA for disability benefits and for access to mental health services. In one scene, she calls the VA to make an appointment and gets this recording: "Due to a large volume of calls, counselors are unable to answer your call." Instead of talk therapy, Cioca is prescribed a mini-pharmacy of mood-stabilizing medications that don't alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.

Her caring husband and active, young daughter keep her going. The scenes of Cioca at home talking with her husband about her difficulty having sex, figuring out reams of VA forms and pureeing food in a blender are loaded with uncomfortable truths and raw emotion. We see and feel the couple's frustration and affection for one another.

In a film about military sexual trauma, it would be easy to direct the focus toward hating all men, but the husbands and fathers featured in The Invisible War make that impossible. Their love and support is crucial to each woman's ability to cope.

DICK HAS said that the women featured in The Invisible War only agreed to participate on the condition that the film not come off as anti-military. He said:

Regardless of one's opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we all can agree that people risking their lives should be protected from assault by their own soldiers. The military is a very effective fighting force when it comes to dealing with the enemy without. It's really now time for them to start dealing with this enemy within.

But the enemy within is the enemy without. It's not possible to separate what happens inside the military from the wars that are fought abroad. Soldiers rape and brutalize women in wars for the same reason they rape their fellow soldiers. And in both cases, they get away with it.

Dick is wrong to say that the U.S. military is an effective fighting force. It is now widely acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won, and the majority of Americans want the troops out now. The consciousness of the American people is far ahead of the politicians and the Pentagon.

One indication that all is not well inside the military is the suicide rate among soldiers. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Defense, the suicide rate for active-duty soldiers so far in 2012 is one death per day. This year, more soldiers have died by suicide than were killed in action in Afghanistan. What is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta going to do about that?

Moreover, surviving MST and living with PTSD has led hundreds of thousands of soldiers to question their patriotism and convinced them to oppose war. The soldiers who formed the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) are among the most militant and vocal advocates for the rights of veterans. Including the voices of antiwar women soldiers would have added more depth to an incredibly powerful and must-see film.

But there was one unmistakable anti-military moment in the film: When the women soldiers were asked if they would let their daughters join the military, not one said yes.

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