Dealing with Rape in the Military

Since its release last year to triumphant acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival,  The Invisible War has gone on to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards.   Dired by Kirby Dick, the documentary highlights the grossly underreported problem of rape in the U.S. military.   The film presents interviews with victims from multiple branches of the United States Armed Services.   The Invisible War also features interviews with advocates, health care workers dealing with military rape victims, retired generals and admirals, and representatives from the Department of Defense

Though military statistics report 3,191 cases of sexual trauma in 2011 alone, those figures severely underestimate the true incidence of rape.  Since many victims choose not to report their assaults and commanding officers often refuse to acknowledge that an assault occurred,  getting justice can seem impossible at times. In all too many cases, reporting the crime often leads to reprisals against the victim rather than any punishment of the rapist.  Obtaining treatment for rape trauma and health benefits for mental health issues arising from the rape can lead to a new type of trauma as victims deal with the military bureaucracy. 

Despite high-profile incidents such as the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal, complaints of sexual assault are still often ignored by commanding officers and the military justice system.  Despite numerous promises by senior officials in the Department of Defense to help military rape victims, actual reform has been slow to happen.    Part of the problem lies with unit commanders who have the primary responsibility of dealing with rape complaints.   Since commanders are often friends with the assailant, or can even be participants in the assault, rape complaints can be stonewalled or ignored.  

But military rape victims are now fighting back.    Along with The Invisible War, a new viral campaign titled "I am One" is showing the human face of military rape victims and providing them with a way of telling their stories.     As highlighted in The Invisible War, some rape victims have filed a civil lawsuit against the Department of Defence over poorly handled rape complaints and the rocky road many victims face in getting juustice.   One of the lead complainants in the suit is veteran Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca who was discharged from the Coast Guard with injuries that went untreated following her sexual assault.    In the gripping narrative provided in the documentary, Cioca describes her life since her discharge and the difficulties she faced in getting reimbursed for the numerous medical issues resulting from her assault.    Since The Invisible War came out, she described how the increased visibility has helped her personal situation with complete strangers coming forward to help pay her medical bills. 

As Cioca noted recently in the Huffington Post,  her injuries and the numerous surgeries that she required as a result serve as a reminder of what she experienced.    Still, the support that she has received since going public with her story has helped her as well.    "It is healing for me to know that sharing my story has given others their voice and the knowledge that they are not alone. The outpouring of support following the film has filled me with the strength to keep going and has once again given my life purpose,"  she says.    "I am grateful for that. And because of that, for the first time in my life I no longer have to feel the blame, embarrassment and shame of being raped. The military made me believe that if I would have protected my body better, he wouldn't have entered it. I am sad to have been a victim, but fortunate to consider myself a survivor of our military's invisible war."

Some progress is being made however, including a recent report from the Department of Defence calling sexual violence in the military “an affront to the basic American values we defend and may degrade military readiness, subvert strategic goodwill and forever change the lives of victims and their families.”    Lawmakers have also introduced the Ruth Moore Act this year, one day following President Obama's State of the Union Address.   Named for a female veteran who was raped repeatedly in the military and subsequently sank into homelessness and depression, the Act is intended to streamline the military justice process and make it easier for victims to receive benefits for mental health issues.  

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