Military rape: The invisible war

A new documentary exposes the epidemic of sexual assault within the US armed forces.

Former Marine Ariana Klay, right, was raped by a senior official and his friend [Photo: Cinedigm/Docurama Films]

San Francisco, CA –
Every politician who has ever uttered the empty slogan “Support Our Troops” should be required to see The Invisible War, a heart-wrenching documentary that exposes the epidemic of rape within the US military and its widespread cover-ups.

They should be required to watch the troops they claim to support courageously talk about what it was like to be brutally raped and assaulted by their “brothers-in-arms”. The numbers are astounding. According to Department of Defence estimates [PDF], more than 19,000 women and men were assaulted in 2010 alone. As many as 500,000 women and men have been raped or sexually assaulted since World War II. And nearly 80 per cent of survivors never report for fear of retaliation and intimidation.

Politicians and military top brass, who for years have claimed to embrace a “zero tolerance” policy, must be required to explain why sexual predators are still in every branch of the military or, once they get out, walking our streets. Of 3,223 perpetrators who were actually investigated, only 175 ended up serving jail time, according to Susan Burke, an attorney who grew up on military bases. The main problem is that unit commanders have full discretion to refuse to move forward with a case.

There’s no way out of it. If you think about it, the only way out is suicide or AWOL.

– Former Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Sergeant Myla Haider

Approximately 33 per cent of servicewomen and men don’t report their assault because the person to report to is a friend of the rapist; 25 per cent don’t report because the person to report to is the rapist. Incidents of rape triple in units where assault is tolerated, say analysts.

According to Russell Strand, chief of the US army’s Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, the average sex offender has about 300 victims and the vast majority of sex offenders will never be caught. In the case of the US military, the perpetrators walk – while the women and men they brutalise are forced to deal with physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives. The pain never goes away.

In most cases, the trauma and suffering that takes place after the rape is worse than the rape itself. Almost every woman and man you meet in this film has either attempted suicide or thought about it.

Former US air force officer Michael Matthews tried to kill himself in his garage. He was raped in the 1970s. “I was 19 and I went to the chow hall alone and the next thing I know, I was laying on the ground,” he says in the film. “I was struck from behind and two guys were holding me down. One guy was pulling my pants down. I struggled. I was being struck and hit and told to shut up or they’d kill me. It destroyed my life.”

Former Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Sergeant Myla Haider added: “There’s no way out of it. If you think about it, the only way out is suicide or AWOL.”

In 2002, Haider says she was raped by a CID agent who was under investigation for assaulting several other women. Not only was he never charged, but eventually he went on to become a supervisor at a major US corporation and reportedly sexually assaulted a female employee. He got off again and now lives in Queens, New York. Haider was discharged with no benefits after nine-and-a-half years of service.

Sexual violence in the US military

Former Coast Guard Seawoman Kori Cioca is still fighting the Veterans Administration to cover the jaw surgery she desperately needs. In December 2005, she was raped by a commander who also hit her on the left side of her face. If she goes outside when it’s cold, her jaw locks up. Because she didn’t serve all of her time, she was denied ongoing healthcare coverage. Her assailant is still in the Coast Guard. The rape is almost always on her mind.

Retired navy officer Trina McDonald showed up for duty in February. In April, she was drugged and raped. “They made it very, very clear that if I said anything, they were gonna kill me.”

“He put his locked and loaded .45 at the base of my skull,” says retired US Army officer Lee Le Teff.

“He slammed my head against the concrete wall and very forcefully had sex with me,” says retired US navy officer Tia Christopher.

Former US navy officer Hannah Sewell screamed and yelled for help. No one came to her rescue. “Once he was done, he rubbed his hand over my entire body and said: ‘I own all of this.'” she said. “My main nerve in my spine was pinched in three places and my hips were rotated. I could barely walk. I collapsed, due to muscle spasms in my back because my back was injured during the rape.”

Sewell was told her rape kit, nurse examiner’s report, and photos of her bruised arm were all lost. She then learned that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service had the evidence, but because the case had been closed, there was nothing they could do. Her assailant is still in the navy and stationed just three hours from her home in Kentucky.  

The sheer number of women and men who candidly tell their stories is overwhelming. Just when you have time to take a deep breath and let the harrowing details sink in, another group appears. In some cases, their partners also relive the pain. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering deserve major kudos for giving a voice to women and men of all ages, backgrounds and races.

“The tragedy of that is every one of these guys who gets off free will be doing it to other women again and again, often for years and years and years.”

– Helen Benedict

I first wrote about rape in the military in July 2006 when former Army Specialist Suzanne Swift accused three sergeants in Iraq of sexual harassment and assault. Swift told me the sergeants propositioned her for sex shortly after arriving for her first tour of duty in February 2004. She remained in Iraq until February 2005.

“When you are over there, you are lower than dirt; you are expendable as a soldier in general, and as a woman, it’s worse,” she said in an interview with the Guardian.

Sadly, not much has changed.

When former Marine Officer Ariana Klay first checked in to Washington DC’s Marine Barracks, the most prestigious unit in the Marine Corps, she was told: “Don’t wear any make-up because the Marines will think that you want to sleep with them”.

“There was a senior officer in my command who, the first time he spoke to me, he said: ‘Female Marines here are nothing but objects for Marines to f**k.'”

The Marine Barracks, which is one mile from the US Capitol and handles security at the White House, conducts ceremonial honours at the Pentagon, is often visited by presidents and dignitaries and provides military funeral detail at Arlington National Ceremony. Because it’s a showcase unit, no one questions what happens.

According to Klay and other women who served there, weekly alcohol-fuelled “happy hours”, which start at 3pm and end at 2am, are mandatory. How is this even legal?

“The atmosphere off the bat at Marine Barracks Washington was horrible. People asked me what sexual favours I performed to get my orders there,” said former Marine officer Elle Helmer. “I was ordered to drink. We went to various pubs and bars and the goal was to do a shot at each one, all paid for by the Marine Corps.”

After one such weekly drinking event in August 2010, Klay was raped by a senior officer and his friend. One of her assailants was court-martialled and found guilty only of adultery and indecent language.

In March 2006, Helmer says she was raped by her company commander. The investigation was closed for lack of evidence, but a new case was reopened to charge her with public intoxication. Her assailant has since been promoted to lieutenant colonel.

Filmmakers Dick and Ziering contacted five female Marines who were each assaulted by an officer while serving at Marine Barracks. Not one officer was held accountable, yet four of the women were investigated or punished after they filed reports.

It’s the classic case of blaming the victim while the rapist walks. Helen Benedict, whose reporting on women soldiers on inspired The Invisible War, has done extensive research on why soldiers rape, exploring everything from the military’s culture of misogyny and patriarchy to illegal occupations and soldiers who have been abused as children (half of male enlistees have been abused, according to the Boston Veterans Affairs Health Center).

“Most rapists are repetitive criminals. People do it again and again,” she says in the film. “The tragedy of that is every one of these guys who gets off free will be doing it to other women again and again, often for years and years and years.”

A US navy study found that 15 per cent of incoming recruits attempted or committed rape before entering the military. That’s twice the percentage of the equivalent civilian population. The Invisible War has received extensive media coverage, but most pieces fail to highlight Benedict’s crucial point. If a soldier rapes a fellow soldier, he will most likely get a slap on the wrist and will continue raping. The US government has power to stop this, but chooses not to.

Until the chain of command is removed from the process entirely and we start seeing prosecutions leading to jail time, rape will remain an occupational hazard of military service.

US army retired Major General Dennis Laich says he would see a soldier get four or five years for selling a minor amount of drugs. Then he would see a soldier get two weeks extra duty for rape.

“The last thing a company commander wants to do is make the phone call to his or her battalion commander to say: ‘I have had an allegation of a rape in my unit’,” he says. “It will adversely affect their career.”

And therein lies the problem. Former Sergeant Myla Haider says commanders should not be the deciding authority, because they’re not capable of being objective.

On April 14, 2012, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta watched the film. Two days later, he took prosecutorial power away from direct commanders. Attorney Susan Burke says because Panetta bumped the issue up to higher-level commanders, this modest change will not result in more prosecutions.

She says the real solution is simple: “If they actually had systems of accountability that prosecuted and imprisoned perpetrators, you would get rid of the rapes right away.”

Last year, Burke filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of 18 men and women seeking to bring former Secretaries of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates to justice. The lawsuit alleges that they oversaw a system that has deprived rape survivors of their constitutional rights. In December 2011, the court dismissed the survivors’ lawsuit, ruling that rape is an occupational hazard of military service. In March, Burke filed another suit specifically targeting the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC.

Until the chain of command is removed from the process entirely and we start seeing prosecutions leading to jail time, rape will remain an occupational hazard of military service.

The Invisible War is in theatres across the United States. See it. Spread the word. There is no excuse for denial and fear of taking on the military-industrial complex. Shame government officials until they get serious about ending pervasive rape in the world’s most powerful institution.

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @roseaguilar