By Donna McAleer
Best Defense giant slalom correspondent
Forget the creepy guys in trench coats -- the Penn State University and the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals remind us that it's harder than you might imagine to identify sex offenders inside institutions. Put that perpetrator in military uniform or clerical apparel and we want to deny it is even possible. Be it renegades, robes or uniforms, rape is the betrayal of trust manifest.
U.S. servicewomen are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a solider than they are likely to be killed in the line of fire. The new battlefield is the barracks.
The Invisible War, a documentary film premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is an investigative and enraging emotional analysis of the epidemic of rape and sexual assault within the U.S. military. If the term "epidemic" seems strident or alarmist, the facts chillingly reveal that sexual assault and rape are prevalent and that the military justice system presently in place is an enabler that shockingly perpetuates the crime. It is not an abberration. In fact, the closed military justice system is a target-rich environment for a sexual predator.
The 2010 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military indicates that 3,158 cases were officially reported. A Department of Defense survey of active duty members revealed that only 13.5 percent of sexual assaults within the services were reported. The Pentagon itself estimates that more than 19,000 incidents of sexual assault actually occurred in 2010, not the 3,158 officially reported.
Invisible War vividly portrays the intense and extreme personal and social consequences that result from these brutal crimes. This is not only a woman's story, it is a man's story. Rape is a crime of power and violence. Within the military, this is a troop welfare issue. Within society, this is human rights story.
The academy-award winning team of Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering and Geralyn Dreyfous deliver an powerful film that makes a strong call for fundamental change in the way the violent crimes of rape and sexual assault are handled. Fully aware of the explosive nature of the topic, the filmmakers' overriding agenda is to provide a positive portrait of our armed forces and a balanced account showing how the services, through addressing the issue of rape and sexual assault within its ranks, could better realize and support the men and women who proudly wear our nation's uniforms.
The film treats this traumatic and highly charged issue in as balanced a manner as possible. The crimes are real and their consequences are devastating, but this documentary is not a hatchet job. The producers and directors have done an admirable job getting on-screen interviews with a number of civilian experts in the field, politicians, and retired officers up to and including the rank of lieutenant general.
Through the drama of the survivors of rape and sexual assault, The Invisible War offers a possible solution to the epidemic-a change to the military justice system in how cases of rape and sexual assault are investigated, prosecuted and punished. The call is to take them out of the survivor's chain of command. Canada and the United Kingdom along with most of our NATO allies, no longer allow military commanders to determine the prosecution of sexual assault cases.
Today military law requires that the officers directly in charge of the offenders decide how these cases are handled. This creates a clear conflict of interest and as a result, in the vast majority of sexual assault cases charges are not proffered. Only 8 percent of sexual assault cases are prosecuted and only 2 percent are convicted.
When women and men put themselves at risk to serve their country, they deserve to know that their chain of command and a grateful nation have got their backs. They deserve a basic guarantee of safety within our own Armed Forces. It is so ironic that the very forces we rely on to defend our country, and its pillar principles of freedom and equality, is the same group of forces that threatens women (and men) in its own ranks. It show what dangerous animals we are at heart.
It is not surprising that nearly 80 percent of these crimes go unreported. This is a profession, a culture and an environment in which strength, both physical and emotional, is paramount. Strength is a proxy for leadership.
Rape in any circumstance is violent, brutal and a heinous crime. In the military the effects are exacerbated. Victims are often ignored, their wounds (physical, emotionally, and spiritual) are left untended, and the psychological damage festers silently, poisoning lives. The scars, physical, emotional and professional, persist. Survivors are expected to carry on, facing their attacker on a daily basis. And each day they relive it-again and again. These crimes have robbed the survivors of their pride, confidence, esteem, dignity, physicality and voice.
In both peace and in war, the military has to exist and operate as a team. This is part of the entire socialization and culturalization process. We are taught this and buy into from our first day in basic training. We are a unit. And a unit implies unity. When someone is raped and violated by someone within the unit and others within the unit do not take it seriously, unit cohesion fragments.
The importance of unit cohesion, "the bonding together of soldiers in such a way as to sustain their will and commitment to each other, the unit, and mission accomplishment, despite combat or mission stress" was first established in the founding our Nation. "My first wish would be that my military family, and the whole Army, should consider themselves as a band of brothers, willing and ready to die for each other," wrote George Washington to Henry Knox on 21 October 1798. As that excerpt from George Washington's letter to the first secretary of war of the United States illustrates, cohesion has been a fundamental objective for military leaders since the founding of the institution. Yet current case disposition of rape and sexual assault virtually overlook the importance of unit cohesion.
It is no wonder that 33 percent of female soldiers did not report their rape because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist or that 25 percent of female soldiers did not report their rape because the person to report to was the rapist.
And there are financial consequences. The Veterans Administration spends approximately $10,880 on healthcare costs per military sexual assault survivor. In 2010 alone, adjusting for inflation, the VA spent $872 million dollars on sexual assault related healthcare cases. The Department of Defense (DOD) estimated that legal expenses that result from military sexual assault cases average $40,000 per case. With 481 sexual assault-related courts-marital cases in 2010, DOD legal expenses totaled more than $19 million dollars. Those are known costs. Who knows what the true costs are giving all the unreported cases.
The Invisible War does not just present the drama of the survivors, most of whom did not see their assailants punished and in some cases actually saw him promoted, but it presents a possible solution to the end the problems with sexual violence. It shows us that these survivors are not invisible.
The solution proffered is a radical overhaul in the military justice system making it similar to the civil system where a survivor can report to the police, and the crime is investigated and prosecuted by an impartial judicial system.
While this is a painful, poignant and devastating film and the subject matter is controversial, it will have a lasting impact.
Donna McAleer of Park City, Utah, is a West Point graduate, a former Army officer and the author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing, 2010). Providing full disclosure, Donna was an interview subject in The Invisible War.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.