'Invisible War': New Documentary Exposes Rape in the Military

Women recount assault and denial by military in documentary.

June 22, 2012, 9:07 PM

June 27, 2012— -- It was not a story she liked to tell.

At 19, Kori Cioca had joined the Coast Guard, and after completing basic training, she said, "I had never felt so proud of myself. I was ready for anything they could throw at me.

"But I didn't think rape was going to be one of them."

Her sister was in the Navy, college wasn't for Cioca, and there was no waiting period to join the Coast Guard. So Cioca, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall, signed up. But within two months she had been assaulted and raped by her 6-foot-3-inch supervisor, who weighed 240 pounds.

He had been asking her out, not accepting her "no," making lewd comments, drinking on the job, making her perform hard physical labor on the boat that generally required three men.

One night, he raped her. To this day, Cioca suffers from nerve damage in her face from a broken jaw; she takes numerous medications for anxiety and depression and is on a diet of soft foods -- mashed potatoes, Jell-O.

"When I reported the rape, it was like poking a beehive, I was getting stung from every side," she told ABC News. No one wanted to tangle with the perpetrator; he'd threaten to kill the family of anyone who reported him. Even today, Cioca says she understands her fellow Coasties' reluctance to get involved. And even today, though her assaulter remains in the military, in Charleston, S.C., Cioca says she still loves the Coast Guard.

A few years after the incident, when two Los Angeles-based filmmakers, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, got her name from a lawyer representing Cioca and other women who'd been raped and asked to come see her, "I said O.K," said Cioca. "I was nervous."

"When someone finds out you've been raped," she said, "they look at you like you're disgusting." So when Cioca got to the part in her story about the rape, "I put my head down, because I didn't want to see the way they were looking at me. But when I looked up, Kirby and Amy were both crying with me."

The result of that interview, and dozens more, is "The Invisible War," a moving, often shocking documentary that seamlessly weaves together the stories of women who signed up for the military intending to serve their country but instead found themselves the victim of rape.

And as terrible as the rape was, the repercussions were almost as horrendous -- women were accused of adultery (if the perpetrator happened to be married) or "conduct unbecoming an officer." They lost rank, they were accused of having "set up the men." When one of the women reported a rape -- the third that week in one particular unit -- she was asked, "You girls think this is a game; are you all in cahoots?"

It's what Dick refers to as the "second traumatization, the way the victim is treated by the military."

There are statistics that shock, from the military: A Navy study conducted anonymously reported that 15 percent of incoming recruits had attempted or committed rape before entering the military, twice the percentage of an equivalent civilian population. Women who've been raped in the military have a higher PTSD rate than men in combat. In 2010, there were 2,617 military victims (women and men), but that represented only about 14% of the estimated number of victims; 86% did not report they had been sexually assaulted.

Journalist Helen Benedict, author of "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq," tells the filmmakers that 40 percent of homeless female veterans have been raped.

In the film, fathers and husbands break down; they are members of a military devastated by what's happened to their daughters and wives, and how their once-beloved institution failed them.

Kirby Dick grew up thinking that the military "takes care of its own." His father was in the Navy. Ziering recalls only a "peripheral and tangential" knowledge of the military. (This is not their first collaboration; their film "Outrage" took on closeted politicians who support legislation harmful to the gay community.)

"What surprised me most was the uniformity of the damage," said Zeiring. "You could talk to people from different branches, different generations, and uniformly they tell you the same story in the same way."

Although Dick hastens to point out that most men who see the film are "horrified," the problem of rape in the military, Ziering discovered, is "chronic." There are "flare-ups, Tailhook or Aberdeen, and the military would say, We took care of it." (Tailhook refers to a 1991 convention at which 100 Navy and Marines were alleged to have assaulted more than 80 women; at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a dozen officers sexually assaulted female trainees.)

"The Invisible War," they hope, will "reframe the issue so that it re-enters the public consciousness," said Ziering. She views it as analogous to the way people now view the problem of pedophile priests. First it was "comedian jokes, then rumors of priests abusing children; now there's the absolute conviction of the public at large that this is an institutional problem."

So far the reception has been "phenomenal," said Dick. After the film won the audience award at the Sundance film festival, the two started "a campaign to get it into the hands of as many policymakers as possible, the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, Congress."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has seen it. "The documentary reinforced for the secretary the problems associated with sexual assault in the U.S. military," said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary. "He's been squarely focused on taking decisive steps to prevent it, and when it does occur, to hold the perpetrators of sexual assault crimes accountable."

In an email to ABC News, Eileen Lainez of the Defense Department listed various recent initiatives: Within the last year, a two-star general has been overseeing the Sexual Assault Prevention and Protection Office, and new victim-focused policies have been implemented, including "expanded legal assistance, expedited transfers for victims of sexual assault, and extended retention of forensic examination and investigative reports." (In the film, the survivors recount tales of "lost" rape kits, "lost" photos, "lost" records.)

For the women of the film, still traumatized by their experiences, the film has led to friendships, and feelings of you-are-not-alone. Kori Cioca, who has a husband, a four-year-old daughter and just gave birth to a son, regularly talks to Ariana Clay, a former Marine officer who was assaulted at the elite Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C.

For Cioca, making the film has been therapeutic, "having people listen and look through your documents and not judge you." Although she says she still loves the military -- her sister's been in the Navy 10 years and has not been subjected to sexual harassment -- she muses aloud whether there shouldn't be a disclaimer when you enter, like the surgeon general's on cigarettes: "You might get raped and assaulted. Side effects may include PTSD."

In interviewing the women for "The Invisible War," Ziering noted that many were from religious backgrounds and would not tell their families about their assault for fear of being isolated. Many in the military "come from homes they're trying to flee, they don't have other alternatives."

"One thing that stands out in my mind," she said: "[When we interviewed the women] the person would say to me, Even if you don't make this documentary and put me in it, thank you for talking to me. You're the first person that ever cared to listen and believe me."

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