by Sharon Waxman
Rape in the American armed forces is an issue that has quietly been gathering attention over the past decade. But it exploded with the power of suppressed fury at the Sundance Film Festival in late January at a screening of the documentary The Invisible War, a devastating indictment of the government’s inaction on the issue.

Director Kirby Dick brought a powerful weapon to his film: victim after eloquent victim, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, Army and Air Force veterans who were assaulted by fellow officers, supervisors or recruits. They tell their stories in courageous detail, and it quickly becomes clear that these are not isolated incidents but a pattern reflective of a widespread rot within America’s military institution, one that betrays its essential values.

The film, which won the Audience Choice award for documentaries, has as principal characters, individuals who were among the best of their class. There were many to choose from. Although in some cases men, they were primarily women who joined the military out of devotion to country and a desire to serve. One Marine, Ariana Klay, was raped in Washington, D.C. by a fellow officer who was in the elite Marine Barracks. A Navy officer, Trina McDonald, was drugged and raped repeatedly by fellow officers on a remote base in Alaska.

Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca was raped and then assaulted— smacked so hard in the face that it dislocated her jaw, causing her permanent damage and pain for which the Veterans Administration declines to provide medical coverage. One woman who was assaulted had previously been a military investigator of crimes. Rape investigations were always steered away from the women, she recounted, because they would be “too sympathetic.”

Every woman in the film has had her life shattered by this event—not necessarily because of the rape, but because of the response by the military establishment. After lodging complaints, the women were met with indifference or targeted retaliation. They have had to leave the military. Some were threatened with violence.

For each, the betrayal by their colleagues and by an institution they trusted deeply has been a wound that, as one military psychologist affirms, cuts to “the soul.” Almost none of the alleged perpetrators were brought up on charges or punished in any way. Some have gone on to rape again, in the military or the private sector.

Dick, who took on the Catholic Church’s indifference to sexual abuse in his documentary Twist of Faith, hopes the film will mobilize change in a way that lobbying and newspaper journalism so far have not. Two obvious policy changes are necessary: better screening of new recruits to winnow out potential predators, and moving the authority for investigating and prosecuting rape into independent hands. At the moment, local commanders have nearly all the power in these matters.

First, the military “has to admit they have a problem,” Dick said at the Q & A after the Sundance screening, where more than a half-dozen victims stood and received applause. “They need another mind-set to attack this issue.”

The movie, distribution for which had not yet been secured, profoundly shocked the audience. One military recruiter stood and asked for the names of the bases involved so she could steer female enlistees away from known risk areas. A 17-year-old girl stood up in tears and thanked the women for speaking out.

But there was one inspiring surprise after the screening. A couple in the audience approached Cioca and told her they will pay for the surgery to repair her jaw, which causes her pain every day. The cost is around $60,000 and without V.A. medical coverage she cannot afford it. Cioca was overwhelmed. The couple, an investment banker and his wife, said they preferred to remain anonymous.
Sharon Waxman founded the media business blog called “The Wrap” in 2009. Formerly a correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Times, she is the author of Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System. A version of this article first appeared in