The Invisible War of Military Women

The Invisible War of Military Women
Myla Haider, Kori Cioca & Trina McDonald at the survivor speak-out session on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Deb Zeitman. All rights reserved.)

On Sunday I attended the Sundance premiere of The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s heartbreaking documentary about sexual assault in the military.

The 90-minute documentary opens with vintage military recruitment ads aimed at women from as early as the 1940s. They’re followed by clips of women military members talking about what drew them to a career in the military.

Quickly, the interviews turn serious, and we learn that each woman is a survivor of rape at the hands of another military member. Even though they all love the military, each says she would not recommend the military as a career to any other woman until significant structural changes are made to prevent sexual violence.

The Department of Defense estimates that during 2010, as many as 19,000 women were raped in the military. Overall, more than twenty percent of women veterans report being raped by their coworkers either as recruits or as active duty members. And about one in 100 men screen positive for “military sexual trauma.”

Every survivor in the film—including one man—describes feelings of betrayal because their assailant was a “brother” in arms. Those who reported it talked about how traumatizing it was to then face retaliation from the military. Their frustrations over inadequate health care, therapy and support are another common theme.

The film’s main subject is Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca, the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense. Her rapist dislocated her jaw, she says, and Veterans Affairs has yet to provide medical coverage to fix it. In the meantime, she is in pain every day, can eat only soft foods and has to avoid going outside in the winter because her jaw locks up in the cold. Instead of approving surgery to repair her jaw, she says, the military doctors prescribed an alarming amount of drugs, which she displays.

During a survivor speak-out that followed the screening, Cioca went into more detail about the inadequate care she’s received. I was shocked when she described how one insensitive doctor questioned why she was there, claiming her jaw looked fine, then tried to pry her mouth open with his hands. Next he jammed a mirror in her mouth and despite her protests, only stopped when she got up and left. The other survivors shared similar horror stories of the treatment they received.

But The Invisible War also highlights a hope for change. The film features several dedicated members of Congress, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who are working to pass legislation to fix some of the structural problems in the military. Cicoca and other brave survivors have banded together with lawyer Susan Burke to file the class-action suit. The love the survivors’ families show them was also a positive force throughout the film: The tears of some of the women’s husbands moved members of the Sundance audience to tears.

The screening was followed by a survivor speak-out, during which more hope emerged. Survivor after survivor said that working with film producer Amy Ziering was better than any official therapy they’d been through because she actually listened to their stories without cutting them off or dismissing them. It was also heartening, they said, to learn they weren’t alone, and they hope that seeing the film will be a turning point for other survivors.

Spouses of survivors spoke at the session as well. One husband said that The Invisible War showed him and his wife how they can make their difference in the world: by speaking out for cultural and structural changes in the military.

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Holly Kearl is an anti-street harassment expert, writer, and nonprofit professional based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has been cited by the United Nations, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, ABC News, NPR, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire Magazines, Feministing, and Jezebel.