The Film That Revolutionized the Discussion about Military Rape

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The Invisible War

Nominated for an Academy AwardThe Invisible War (airing May 13) has changed the way we talk about sexual assault in the military and even impacted policy. After watching The Invisible War, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta transferred the power to prosecute sexual assault from the level of unit commander to colonel.

This Wednesday, three women and one man who were sexually assaulted in the military testified about their experiences before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Wednesday hearing. It is the first hearing on sexual assault in the military in a decade.

One of the veterans, former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla, was raped by a fellow service member in Afghanistan. An Army chaplain told her it was “God’s will” that she was raped, according to ABC News. Later, her aggressor admitted to “consensual” sex while he was married, but the military dropped the charges against him.

“The military criminal justice system is broken,” Havrilla said.

Earlier this month, Panetta tied the issue of military rape to the February shooting of two Santa Cruz officers. Jeremy Goulet was accused of two alleged rapes of military officers and ultimately accepted an “other-than-honorable” discharge. The two officers had been inspecting another sexual assault complaint on Feb. 26 when Goulet threw open his door and fatally shot them. “Had Goulet been convicted of the two rapes, he probably would have landed in a military prison for life,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Back in 2012, Panetta moved the power to prosecute sexual assault up the chain of command to colonels so that, in theory, they would serve as more impartial judges and enact more prosecutions. The policy change “was an important first step, but it’s still in the chain of command,” The Invisible War director Kirby Dick told ITVS. “There’s a conflict of interest. The colonel may know still the perpetrator or may know the commander who knows the perpetrator, it’s a direct connection, or the victim, either way. And it should be taken out of the chain of command.”

This week, one high-profile case moved all the way to the top of the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will review the case of a lieutenant colonel who was convicted of sexual assault and then dismissed of the charges an Air Force general. The dismissal appalled members of Congress.

Other recent policy changes have impacted the role of military women specifically (an estimated 20 percent of women and 1 percent of men in the military have been affected by sexual assault). In January, the Pentagon repealed a 1994 law that barred women from infantry roles, even though female soldiers have worked in the line of fire for decades and more than 100 died in Iraq.

“Combat positions are seen as the pinnacle of military,” Kirby Dick told ITVS. Women “won’t be quite as much second-class citizens. I think that will reduce harassment.”

In June, Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering held a screening for senators, congresspeople, and their staff, including Barbara Boxer. This May, The Invisible War will reach the American public at large when it airs on PBS.

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  • Cindy Matthews Landis

    The prosecution needs to be moved into the civil courts. No more protection, no more hiding, a crime is a crime is a crime regardless of the subculture in which it


    Abolutely Ms. Landis, in regards to the sexual violence in Tahir Square of Cairo is the same reasoning used there as well. Women do not belong in the public square, especially parallel to men, so they should be punished and shamed, and also the men are humiliated because they can not protect the women. This reasoning to show us that we do not belong, even though we suffer the same in the military as in public life, we die in combat, we live in combat, yet we can not seek our justice the same because we do not belong there in the first place. The subculture is to make us fear our place in the world, even though we have earned it. A female soldier was quoted (paraphrasing) as stating in an interview that women are here to stay and fight as they have always done and those that disagree will die off.

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  • Ganjoka

    After watching the program I arrived at the following conclusion. If this had happened to my wife or another family member I would have no choice but to take harsh retribution upon the perpetrator. I take this position because I know the military will never bring justice to the victims.

    • Jenn Johnson

      My husband feels the same way Ganjoka

  • Jenn Johnson

    This is so hard to watch yet, I am glad that I am able to view this. My husband was halfway asleep when he sat straight up as he heard some of the reports from these brave women and men. Our viewpoint is that the military is not going to change their ways anytime soon which is sad because they really need to. This has been going on for far too long. The fact that it has happened at all is disgusting. I commend these men and women for coming forward to tell what really happens in the military and how they are not getting the help that they need. This needs to stop and the victims need anything and everything that they need to cope because they are not going to “get over” this. That is just not going to happen. As hard as this is to watch, I thank PBS for broadcasting this.