Fighting Sexual Assault in the Military

February 19, 2013

What happens when you’re a soldier and the barracks — not the battlefield — is your war zone?

Sexual assault in the U.S. military is a significant problem, one that affects 20 percent of women and 1 percent of men in the armed forces. The Invisible War, an investigative documentary, shows the impact that rape — and retaliation for reporting it — has had on thousands of our brave service members.

invisible-war-imageElle Helmer, one of the women whose story is featured in the film, served as an officer in the U.S. Marines at the prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., from 2005 to 2006. Helmer says she was raped in the company commander’s office in 2006 but faced retaliation after reporting it. She recounts in the film that, when she wanted to seek medical help, she was told, “You’re not broken; you’re just dusty. You’ll get into a lot of trouble if you go to the hospital.” After she went to the hospital anyway, her rape kit results were “misplaced.” Helmer says her report was never taken seriously, and her alleged assailant was never charged.

The Invisible War also shows the efforts that are under way to address and prevent sexual violence in the military. One initiative is using the justice system to change the legal precedent that deems rape an “occupational hazard” of the job. Helmer is one of dozens of veterans involved in three lawsuits against the Department of Defense. She is a plaintiff in Klay v. Panetta. Several plaintiffs from one of the other lawsuits, Cioca v. Rumsfeld, are also featured in the documentary, as is the lawyer for all three cases, the courageous and smart Susan Burke.

Through the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund case support program, AAUW supports the veterans in these lawsuits as well as those in a third one, Hoffman v. Panetta. AAUW works to make all workplaces free from sex discrimination and sexual violence, and we believe that women and men in the military, who face so much danger in their work, should feel safe in their barracks, among their comrades.

Because of AAUW’s connection to The Invisible War, we have been following its progress through the film festival circuit to its limited theatrical release. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, where it won the Audience Award, and has since received many other honors, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.

AAUW actively promotes the film and the stories of the subjects. In spring 2012, we hosted a screening at the AAUW national office, with Helmer and producer Amy Ziering leading a discussion afterward. We also screened the film at the 2012 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, where it was well received by college students from across the country. Many AAUW branches have hosted screenings in their communities and on local campuses thanks to a partnership between AAUW and the film’s distributors. Several plaintiffs will be speaking at 2013 AAUW state conventions, thanks to the AAUW Case Support Travel Grant.

While the film and the lawsuits have helped pressure the military to make some changes, they are only a start. You can help support the lawsuits through a donation to AAUW. Visit The Invisible War website for other ideas for actions you can take.

UPDATE, APRIL 18: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has reintroduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act) to address structural changes needed in the military to help end sexual assault. Learn more about the STOP Act and urge your representative to support the bill through AAUW’s Two-Minute Activist tool!

By:   |   February 19, 2013