The U.S. Military’s War Against Women

Yanai Feldman, News Editor

Last Friday, November 15, we met Kori Cioca in the documentary film, The Invisible War. She was a top notch soldier of the US Coast Guard that entered the military with a youth’s energy and idealism. Several months into her service she would be brutally raped and beaten by her superior, which left her not only with severe nerve damage in her jaw, but also with terrible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The film, which was given a 100% aggregate rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is the winner of numerous awards, including “Best Documentary” at the Sundance Film Festival, exposed an “invisible war” being fought against women in our military. Kori’s story and the stories of Hannah Sewell, Elle Helmer, Ariana Klay, Jessica Hinves, and Trina McDonald, are a few of the approximated 24,000-26,000 incidents of sexual assault that occur within the military each year.

The Upper School gathered at the Athletic Center, watched the film, and afterwards spoke with Susan Burke, an attorney who is fighting to change the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted in an inherently flawed military justice system. Although the fact that 19,000 were assaulted just last year is tragic and heartbreaking, the most appalling and utterly staggering statistic is that only 14% of victims report; this is, in and of itself, a reflection of how broken the military justice system is. “It’s sort of a rigged game,” says producer, Amy Ziering. “The people that are adjudicating these crimes are directly in the same chain of command as the people who are…either the plaintiffs or the assailants.” She went on to say that the core of this problem is “that there’s a system in place that doesn’t guarantee impartial over-adjudication of these crimes.”

It is this development that engendered the incredulity and rightful indignation of the student body. “I think what was most shocking and enlightening,” says Matteo Heilbrun, Class of 2014, “was the way that the higher authorities in the military seem to very purposefully condone rape.” The result of such “condoning” is that these violent criminals, these rapists, rarely get court-martialed, and close to none of them end up serving substantial jail time. The more dire consequence is that not only is there no system deterring rapists, but those that do rape know that they can get away with it again and again. Rapists are freed and continue to make new victims while the victims suffer unfathomably.

The reason that sexual assault in the military is so terribly traumatizing is because “it registers as incest and an extremely profound core betrayal,” says Ms. Ziering. “This is your band of brothers. These are people who have your back. So imagine how much worse an assault is by your fellow soldier… it rattles these women, and it made it extremely difficult for them to have trust in any relationships in the future. It’s absolutely shattering.”

Susan Burke talked a lot about how the military judicial system might change. Her solution, and New York Senator Gillibrand’s, is to turn these cases over to civilian courts, where there will be an impartial judge and jury. However, the legislation will most likely not be passed. The military and the commanders within it have had the power to prosecute its own transgressors for centuries now and would hate to give up such a power. Ms. Burke explained that the system is antiquated; that it made sense before the internet, before cell phones, before the vast and quick communication network that is now commonplace in our globalized world. Before, it would have been inefficient and tiresome to extradite suspected military personnel to civilian courts in the US, to lead an investigation in a DA’s office very far away from the crime. But now, it would be possible and much more effective at preventing rape.

The film has publicized this issue and we are already seeing its effects. Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of “Sexual Assault Prevention and Response,” was recently fired. She championed “prevention posters” such as “Don’t risk it. Ask her when she’s sober,” and increasingly made sexual assault and harassment into something not to be taken seriously.  Also, prevention legislation for reform, like Senator Gillibrand’s, is gathering support. We have already seen similar changes to military judicial systems and how they prosecute rape in other countries prove relatively successful at lowering the rate of sexual assault.

Despite the optimism that Ms. Burke showed, and despite Kirby Dick, the film’s director, asserting that “every time there’s attention paid to this film anywhere around the country, activity happens in Washington,” BC students remain skeptical. “I think that masculinity and power are intrinsically connected to the military and are always going to be linked,” says Will Wells, Class of 2015, “and I think the power dynamic, and being away from US borders gives the assailants a feeling that they are not under US law.” These might be some of the reasons for why the high rate of sexual assault could persist even after change is implemented.

Overall, the way we view the military, and the US in general, has shifted somewhat. Some of us have worriedly asked ourselves whether we can trust the military now. I think T. Cooper Lippert, Class of 2015, summed it up best when he told me, “I feel conflicted: these people are supposed to protect us, but they can’t even protect and trust each other.”