Military Sexual Trauma: “The Invisible War,” “Justice Denied”

What they never volunteered for: sexual assault, institutional apathy, failures of justice, callousness in the chain of command and repeated attempts to blame the victim…Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing documentary The Invisible War, about military sexual trauma (MST)

The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, came out in 2012. The reviews have been so compelling that I’ve chosen to provide significant excerpts to describe not only the film but also the issues at hand.

Sara Stewart, The New York Post:

It’s a chronic but shockingly underreported problem, illustrated with extended interviews and cold, hard numbers: Since 2006, more than 95,000 servicewomen and men have been sexually assaulted — and next to none of their rapists has seen jail time or, in many cases, even a demotion.

From a brutalized female soldier chastised for ‘crying over spilled milk,’ to the Ohio Coast Guard veteran still fighting the VA office for treatment of her shattered jaw five years later, Dick chronicles the myriad ways sexual-assault victims are routinely punished and ignored.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times:

What happened to these women after the rape often shocks and disturbs them as much as the physical act itself. More often than not, the charges are not taken seriously as a victim-punishing system treats them like criminals, not injured parties. At times even formally charged with adultery, these women are invariably forced out of the service they would have given their lives for.

The heart of the problem is that U.S. military justice mandates that charges like this are heard not by an independent judiciary but by one’s immediate commanding officer. In many cases that is either the assaulter himself or a close friend, which is one reason the military itself estimates that 80% of sexual assaults are not reported.

The combination of these factors is why the women interviewed here are depressed, skittish, often fearful of going outside. The military reports that 40% of female homeless vets have been raped, and women who have been raped have a higher PTSD rate than men in combat. (One man who was raped is interviewed on camera, with experts saying that the shame factor is worse for men.)

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

…Trina McDonald speaks of being drugged and raped while she was stationed at a Naval operating station in Alaska. Elle Helmer, assigned to a prestigious posting in Washington, was assaulted after enduring months of harassment by her fellow Marines. Kori Cioca’s jaw was broken when, she says, she was raped by a Coast Guard commanding officer. To say that none of them, or the others interviewed, are satisfied by the military’s response would be a gross understatement…

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com:

…Even some military anti-rape campaigns send a mixed message; incredibly, one poster advises men: ‘Don’t risk it — wait until she sobers up.’

Such a system, says Army criminal investigator Sgt. Myla Haider, is designed principally ‘to help women get raped better.’

Although women victims and male perpetrators are the main focus of The Invisible War, male survivors of military sexual trauma and their assaulters, male and female, are represented in another documentary, Michael L. Miller‘s 2013 Justice Denied.

It was executive produced by a clinical social worker whose husband Michael Matthews was raped and sodomized at the age of 19 by a group of male servicemen. He and Geri Lynn Matthews had been married 26 years—and he’d endured years of depression and suicide attempts—when he finally was able to disclose this in a therapy session, then to her (Social Workers Speak). Michael Matthews had also appeared in The Invisible War.

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