Sometimes a news item reaches out from the radio and grabs you by throat, and you know you have to write about it. That's what happened when I was driving down Putnam Avenue one day and heard a report that a female serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan was more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The Department of Defense estimates there were 22,800 violent sex crimes in the military in 2011. A staggering 20% of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted. Of these, women between the ages of 18-21 accounted for more than half of the victims.
I became so angry as I listened that my hands shook as they gripped the steering wheel. When I get angry about something, my first thought is, "I have to DO something about this." My second thought is "I have to WRITE about this."
I spent the weekend following researching material for a young adult novel about how a deployed mom’s experience with military sexual trauma impacts the entire family. In the course of my research, I learned about the documentary THE INVISIBLE WAR, which had just won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Created by Oscar®- and Emmy®-nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick (THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, TWIST OF FAITH) and Emmy®-nominated producer and director Amy Ziering (OUTRAGE, THE MEMORY THIEF), the film paints a startling picture of the extent of the problem of sexual assault in the military—the number of assaults in the last decade alone is believed to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of multiple rape victims, THE INVISIBLE WAR is a moving indictment of the systemic cover-up of military sex crimes, chronicling the women’s struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. It also features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its long-hidden history, and what can be done to bring about much-needed change.
I immediately contacted film’s producers to inquire about arranging a local screening and they put me in touch with Ivonne Zucco, Executive Director of The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, CT, who was also interested in bringing the film to the area. “As part of our work at The Center, we need to bring awareness about sexual assault at so many different levels. When I heard about the film, I knew that screening it was one more way of increasing knowledge about an issue that should concern us all. Change needs to occur in all areas of society and this film is an originator of great awareness.”
Together, Ivonne and I worked with Adam Birnbaum of Stamford’s Avon Theater to bring 'The Invisible War' to the Avon on Monday June 11th at 7:30pm. The event is free to the public with a panel discussion following the screening.
One thing I want to make clear is that The Invisible War isn't anti-military. Many of the women in the film come from families with long histories of military service. Director Kircy Dick says the rape survivors featured in the film agreed to participate on condition that it not be an anti-military film. “All of our subjects were very idealistic and proud to have served,” Dick says. “Regardless of one’s opinion of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, we all can agree that people risking their lives should be protected from assault by their own soldiers.”
But as with all instances of sexual abuse and assault, admitting there is a problem and discussing it openly, learning to fight a culture of silence, coverup and denial is the first step to effecting change. As part of my research I attended the first annual Truth and Justice Summit in DC, organized by the Service Women's Action Network. Brigadier General (Ret.) Thomas Cuthbert has acted as senior advisor to both the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies and the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services stood in front of a ballroom full of women and men, because sexual assault in the military isn't just a women's issue, and told them that the system was working - when for them it patently hadn't - and it was a matter of "teaching kids to say no to a senior officer." I was absolutely floored by his tone deafness and surprised, frankly, that he was able to get out of the room alive after saying that to a room full of traumatized people trained in the art of warfare. I wanted to teach him a thing or two about sexual trauma, and I'm only a civilian. If Cuthbert is the kind of military expert advising the Pentagon, it's no wonder the culture and the system is stacked against women receiving justice.
I hope you'll join us on Monday evening at the Avon for the screening. Supporting the troops means every soldier who is proud to serve.
For more on The Invisible War see this eflier