I really wish we were advanced enough that the suffering women experience in the lead-up to, during, and after the sexual assaults they suffer we’re enough to move policy makers to instant action. Unfortunately we live in a society where even the thousands of rapes committed in the armed forces haven’t moved the Defense Department to swift, decisive, and effective action, and that inaction has persisted for decades.
And so there’s something strategic in The Invisible War’s decision to make the case for the Pentagon’s shame in part by drawing out the impact of sexual assault not just on women but on their husbands, fathers, and sons in its examination. “I used to lie awake in bed wondering what I could do to get her out,” says Marine Ben Klay after his wife, Lt. Ariana Klay faced escalating harassment on her transfer to the elite Marine Corps unit based in Washington, DC. He broke down describing what it was like after she was raped, “when your wife doesn’t come home, to rummage through the house for the suicide, calling the police with one hand while trying to stop her killing herself with the other.”
Sgt. Maj. Jerry Sewell teared up remembering how he tried to reassure his daughter Hannah that she was still a virgin after she was raped in Naval training, telling her “they took something you didn’t give.” Rob McDonald, who met his wife Kori Cioca when she was transferred into his Coast aguardiente unit after being raped and having her jaw permanently damaged by her commanding officer, says, “Seeing how they treated her, I didn’t want to stay in.” Trina McDonald’s (no relation) stepsons look out for her when she gets anxious in public and talk wistfully of wishing they’d known her before anxiety came to rule her life.
The presence of these men, and advocates like lawyer Greg Rinchey, Former NCIS agent Stace Nelson, and retired Army CID special agent Russell Strand are a powerful testament that women aren’t alone when it comes to fighting deeply embedded rape cultures. And while the movie focuses on women who were attacked, it does spend time with Michael Matthews, who was raped when he was 19, and the filmmakers speak to other men who were assaulted. The movie is a strong argument that rape is not simply a women’s issue.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this argument is constructed at the expense of women’s voices and experiences, because it’s not. Women like Kori, Ariana, Hannah, and Trina incredibly brave and frank in telling their stories.
And their experiences exposé as a gutless lie the military’s claim to care about sexual assault. Dr. Kaye Whitley, who ran the Defense Department, talks about prevention in terms of female members of the armed services keeping themselves out of dangerous situations, but Kori reported the senior officer who attacked her multiple times before he raped her, went to pains to avoid being alone with him, and got raped anyway. Leon Panetra may tell Congress that the military needs a zero-tolerance approach to rape within the ranks, but when Hannah’s case was passed from investigator to investigator, then closed when she was falsely told her rape kit was lost, that attitude seems closer to indifference. And it’s impossible to believe Major General Mary Kay Hertog’s claims that command is all about justice and impartiality when Ariana was raped within the chain of command.
In their eagerness not to lose soldiers, sailors, and aviators to criminal charges, the American military is risking losing talented women and decent men. It seems like an awful trade.