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Sundance: Rape is a real danger in 'The Invisible War'

Published January 26, 2012 5:31 pm

Sundance • Documentary spotlights the ways in which the staggering number of cases are handled.
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Every year, Sundance Film Festival's documentary categories offer the potential for a film that takes on and, just maybe, corrects a terrible injustice. This year, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars winding down, that explosive documentary is Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War."

The statistics on the military's rape epidemic, alone, are disturbing: One in five service members, mostly women, have been sexually assaulted, bringing the total to 500,000 — twice the rate for the civilian population. Only 21 percent of reported cases (and only a tiny percentage are reported) are prosecuted. Then, because of the commanders' control of the military justice system, the prosecutions seldom result in jail time.

Finally, because the rapists are "brother" soldiers, sailors and Marines, the trauma is akin to incest, causing the victims to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of combat troops.

How the military breeds rapists • Because of the military's closed culture, one anti-rape activist describes it as "a prime target-rich environment for a sexual predator." And because so few rapists are prosecuted or serve jail time, investigators speculate that emboldened predators serial rape with impunity. "Why would they stop?" asks a sexual-crimes investigator.

In "Invisible War," Dick powerfully brings the statistics home through agonizing interviews with former members of the Navy, Marines, Army and Coast Guard who were raped, then further victimized by the military justice system.

Their stories follow a sad pattern: Commanding officers, who control the investigations and prosecutions, question the victim's motives and, in some cases, order investigations of the victims for adultery and making false charges. In almost all cases, the victims' military careers are finished.

"These are women that, even now, would rather be in the military," Dick says. "This was their dream — to serve their country."

Protection — from your military "brothers" • Kori Cioca, who was brutally raped by a fellow Coast Guard member, now carries a cross and a serrated-blade knife everywhere. "You always have protection with Jesus," she says ruefully. "But sometimes you need a little more."

Another documentary subject was Lt. Ariana Klay, who was a member of the elite Marine Barracks Washington unit that protects the president and performs ceremonial missions when she was raped in 2009 by a senior officer.

All the women spoke of patriotism or family military history as their motivation for enlisting. Dick emphasizes the women would only participate in the documentary on condition it wouldn't be an anti-military film.

"This is one of the most pro-military films to come out of Sundance," Dick says. "All of our subjects were very idealistic and proud to have served."

Beyond posters and training films • Sexual-assault scandals have emerged in the past, including at the Air Force Academy, and in the Navy's 1991 Tailhook controversy, in which more than 80 women were sexually assaulted. In the past, the military has responded with little more than posters and training films. That history leads Air Force Brigadier Gen. Wilma Vaught to ask on camera: "When will this ever end?"

Dick says advocates in military sexual programs have contacted him for permission to use at least the trailer for "The Invisible War" in their training. But real change will have to come from the top, he says. "The people in positions of power, who can make the changes that need to be made, rarely sit down and talk face-to-face with the victims."

Key to the solution, Dick says, is removing unit commanders from control of the investigations and prosecutions of sexual assault and harassment. "The commanders should never be in that position," the filmmaker says. "It should be done as it is in the civilian world. If this were to happen in a corporation, the company president wouldn't have control of the investigation, it would be in the hands of outside investigators."

gwarchol@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake 'The Invisible War' screenings

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 3:30 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 8, Park City

Saturday, Jan. 28, 11:30 a.m. • Library Center Theatre, Park City