Director Kirby Dick interviewed dozens of military sexual assault survivors for the film,"Invisible War." ()
If you think the most recent scandal involving instructors raping recruits during Air Force basic training in San Antonio is just an isolated incident, think again, says the director of a new Oscar-nominated documentary.
"The Invisible War" exposes an "epidemic of sexual assault in the military," says director Kirby Dick, who interviewed dozens of military sexual assault survivors for the film, which also took top honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Among women serving downrange, nearly one in four surveyed say they were sexually assaulted during tours in Iraq or Afghanistan, almost always by fellow service members and often a superior, according to research released by the Veterans Affairs Department in December.
Meanwhile, at the three service academies, reports of sexual assault have more than tripled over the past four academic years, up 23 percent to a total of 80 last year alone, according to a Pentagon report last month.
In anonymous surveys at the schools, 12 percent of female students — and 2 percent of the men — acknowledged unwanted sexual contact, ranging from abusive contact to rape, within the previous 12 months.
With "The Invisible War" delving into the stories behind the statistics, Dick says survivors all too often are met with foot-dragging — and even reprisals — by their own chain of command.
OFFduty caught up with the director during a sold-out screening of the film at New York's Museum of Modern Art to talk about the film's impact and his hope for change.
Q. For someone who hasn't seen your film, how big a problem is sexual assault in the military?
A. According to the Department of Defense's own estimates, more than 19,000 women and men are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military each year. This has been going on for decades, probably generations. It is hard to believe. I think everybody does a double take on those numbers. I know I did. But, again, these are DoD's own estimates. We're talking more than 50 per day.
Q. In making the film, what was your biggest personal surprise?
A. These women and men, who were so patriotic and so loved the military when they were in … they were assaulted, which was horrible enough, but they still had enough faith and belief in their military to come forward and report it. They believed the military would take care of them. But the military turned on them. And the reprisals were in some cases very brutal and always very devastating. These were women and men who wanted careers in the military, who wanted to serve their country, being forced out. To see that again and again and again … it's really shocking.
Q. What's the core problem?
A. We spoke with more than 100 survivors of military sexual assault, and in nearly every case, in one way or another, they were let down by somebody in their chain of command. One thing I do want to say, though, is that most commanders are horrified by this, and most men in the military are horrified by this. What we're dealing with is mostly serial predators [who] attack again and again. They know exactly what they're doing … how to pick a victim, set them up, ply them with alcohol and get them in a situation where they can assault them.
Q. What kind of response has your film drawn from the military?
A. Phenomenal. From when it first screened at Sundance, we've had people coming to us again and again thanking us. I've really grown to respect how much leaders don't want this in their military. Most commanders really want to do the right thing. We know many people very high up the chain of command in nearly all the branches have seen the film and that it's made a real impact on them. I fully expected them to do what they've always done in the past when this kind of issue comes out in public: deny or try to blame the victim; or say it's isolated to small area; or say [it's] already taken care of.
To the military's credit, they didn't do any of those things. I think that's largely to Defense Secretary [Leon] Panetta's credit. They have actually acknowledged it's a very serious problem and took some important first steps. But there's a lot more they have to do.
Q. If the military made only one substantive change to address the problems you raise in the film, what should it be?
A. Take the decision to investigate and prosecute these crimes outside of the chain of command. Since the film was released, Panetta has elevated that decision up from the unit commander to the O-6 level, but he kept it within the chain of command. So, there are still numerous opportunities for conflict of interest for people to try and protect their careers. We have to be very clear: The system as it stands now doesn't work and, really, is the primary problem.
Q. Are you hopeful that real change will come on this front?
A. This is a real moment of opportunity. The military is downsizing, so recruitment is not an issue. Now they can really talk about this without worrying about dissuading people from joining. The military has done this before when they attacked the issue of racism. That was a huge problem, but they undertook a decade-long campaign and were so successful that eventually there was less racism in the military than in the civilian world. The military doesn't get the credit that it deserves for that. The military could be the same kind of leader for this issue, because this is also a problem in the civilian world.