Documentary ‘Invisible War’ Reveals Culture of Sexual Assault in the Military

February 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The soaring rate of sexual assault within the ranks of the U.S. Military has been the subject of studies and a congressional hearing. Academy Award-nominated director Kirby Dick explores the topic in his new documentary, "The Invisible War," nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards.

GWEN IFILL: Sexual assault within the U.S. military has been the subject of scandals, studies, and a recent congressional hearing. But the topic is thoroughly investigated and dramatically presented in the documentary “The Invisible War,” which has been nominated for an Academy Award.

Jeffrey Brown recently talked with its director.

First, a brief excerpt from the film.

SUSAN BURKE, Attorney: What we hear again and again from soldiers who have been raped, what was as bad, if not worse, was to receive professional retaliation in their chosen career merely because they were raped.

THERESA VERDERBER-PHILLIPS, U.S. Army: When you report something, you better be prepared for the repercussions.

CAPT. DEBRA DICKERSON, U.S. Air Force: If a man gets accused of rape, it’s a setup. The woman is lying.

REBECCA CATAGNUS, U.S. Marine Corps: I could choose to report it, but if it wasn’t — if they found out what I was saying wasn’t to be truthful, then I would be reduced in rank.

ALLISON GILL, U.S. Navy: You could lose your rate. You could lose rank. You could lose your school if you file a false report. So do you want to file a report?

CHRISTINA JONES, U.S. Army: Even the rape kit and everything and the person — my friend catching him raping me, they still don’t believe me.

TANDY FINK, U.S. Army: I reported it two different times to my squad leader. And he told me that there was nothing he can do about it because they didn’t have any proof.

ANDREA WERNER, U.S. Army: They actually did charge me with adultery. I wasn’t married. He was.

TIA CHRISTOPHER, U.S. Army: And they took me before my lieutenant commander. He says, do you think this is funny? And I said, what do you mean? He’s like, is this all a joke to you? I was like, what do you mean’ And he goes, you’re the third girl to report rape this week. Are you guys like all in cahoots? You think this is a game.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film which will be shown on the PBS series “Independent Lens” later this year appears to be having an impact within the military.

Just days after a screening, outgoing Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta announced new policies, including a requirement for unit commanders to hand over investigations to senior officers, and the establishment of special victims units within each branch of the military.

The director of “The Invisible War” is Kirby Dick, a veteran filmmaker whose other documentaries include “Outrage” and “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.”

He joins us now.

And welcome to you.

KIRBY DICK, Documentary Filmmaker: Well, thank you for having me

JEFFREY BROWN: we have known this is a problem for a long time, but how big a problem? How pervasive is it?

KIRBY DICK: Well, it’s extremely extensive.

According to the Dept. of Defense’s own estimates, more than 19,000 men and women are sexually assaulted each year in the U.S. military. Now, if you multiply that times the decades that this has been going on, there’s over 500,000, perhaps even close to a million men and women have been sexually assaulted over the last three generations.

JEFFREY BROWN: The problem that you show — and we really saw it in that excerpt — is not only that it happens, but the ugliness afterwards, right? The women themselves are often persecuted.

KIRBY DICK: Exactly.

Only — 86 percent of men and women who are sexually assaulted in the military don’t report. And it’s exactly for those reasons, is that they experience reprisals that are in many ways a second betrayal that is even worse than the actual rape itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes, they have to report it to the perpetrator.


JEFFREY BROWN: Their commanding officer.


JEFFREY BROWN: Or a friend of the perpetrator.

KIRBY DICK: Exactly, or they — and they oftentimes have to remain in that unit and work beside their assailant.

JEFFREY BROWN: The film opens and the women we just saw there, it opens with a sequence of women talking about why they joined the military. These are all women that loved what they were doing. Right? They loved the military and still do in many ways.

KIRBY DICK: Oh, yes. No, absolutely. These are all patriotic women and men who are in our film.

I mean, these are people who wanted a career in the military. And what’s interesting is even after all this happened to them, and they still wish they had a career in the military. I mean, these are people — these are the kind of people we want in our military.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, these are very personal stories, we could see.

Tell me about the process as a filmmaker of how did you find these women, how did you get them to talk?

KIRBY DICK: Well, it was a real challenge to find them, because, as you can see, the last time they spoke out, they experienced such horrible reprisals.

We reached out through all different kinds of sources, actually ended up contacting well over 100, and actually interviewing more than 50. And these interviews were, for me, certainly the most intense and personal interviews that I have ever been involved in.

My producer, Amy Ziering, actually did most of the interviews. I felt it was appropriate because it was a woman to a woman. But, in many cases, these subjects were telling us their story — telling us a story that they had not told anybody else ever before.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, can you give me an anecdote, just to show how hard this was?

KIRBY DICK: Well, there was a time with Kori Cioca, who is really the lead subject in our film, where she — when we sat down to do the interview, she said to us, listen, my husband is in the other room. And the reason he’s there is I haven’t told him that I was raped. I told him I was sexually assaulted. But I didn’t want him to bear that burden.

Now, they’re very close and they’re still together, but this goes to show that it’s not only the person who is raped who is experiencing this trauma. It’s actually the family and the extended family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you go through the military to find any of these women? Or what were your dealings with the military while filming or creating this movie?

KIRBY DICK: For the most part, we were not working with the military at all. We were working actually sort of underground, if you will.

We did have an opportunity to talk to several people within the Pentagon. And what we found and we were very disappointed by was that they weren’t taking the steps that they really needed to take to address this problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is this for you an act of — is it journalism? Is it art? I mean, it’s filmmaking. How do you see what you’re doing?

KIRBY DICK: Well, I guess I see myself as an artist.

But as an artist, I think you take on the greatest challenge you can. And to put all these things together, as to art, filmmaking, journalism into one, I see as an artistic enterprise. But, at the same time, of course, when you’re dealing with this kind of subject, you have to be very journalistically precise, which we were.

But it’s a challenge. I mean, this film was being made actually for two audiences. One was for the filmmaking audience. And it’s been very successful. It was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s won many audience awards. But it was also made for policy-makers in Washington, D.C., a few hundred …

JEFFREY BROWN: You had them in mind?

KIRBY DICK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

I remember, cut by cut, we’d be thinking, this will play to an audience, but maybe in this case we want it to play a little bit more to a policy-maker, because when we were doing these interviews — and they were just devastating — we sort of had this commitment really to make a film that could change this, so men and women in the future wouldn’t be assaulted in our military.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I know that several of your films have that quality of trying — of sort of exposing wrongs. Something draws you to that.

KIRBY DICK: Well, it’s dramatic, as a filmmaker, obviously.

It’s an opportunity — documentary filmmakers have real opportunities now because of the cutbacks in investigative journalism across the country. There are much — there are many fewer investigative journalists now, which is unfortunate for the country, but actually provides more opportunities, and actually I think a responsibility in many ways to documentary filmmakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: I never really thought about, because that’s our industry.


JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re right. I mean, there’s far fewer investigative — far less investigative journalism going on.

So, you see yourself in some ways as stepping into that breach.

KIRBY DICK: To some degree, yes, absolutely.



JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we’re speaking soon after the Pentagon has announced that women will soon be able to serve in combat.

There was a recent hearing on sexual harassment and assault in Congress. There have been some steps lately. And you end the film with Leon Panetta saying that — well, at least taking some action, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Is it your sense that something has changed, something is beginning to happen in this area?

KIRBY DICK: Oh, absolutely.

There’s been some very important first steps, but what they haven’t done and they absolutely have to do is to take the decision to investigate and prosecute these crimes out of the chain of command. The military is fighting very hard on this.

But this is something that would actually improve the process of investigation and prosecution and would remove a conflict of interest, and that’s really the next step.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the film is “The Invisible War.”

Kirby Dick, thanks so much.

KIRBY DICK: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting.

I recently joined the documentary’s filmmakers and a panel of lawmakers and experts who weighed in on the culture of rape in the military. You can read about that discussion on our website.

There, too, you can watch the trailer for “The Invisible War,” plus excerpts from the film.

All week, we’re talking to the directors nominated for Oscars in the best documentary feature category. You will find those conversations on Art Beat.