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The Invisible War: New Film Exposes Rape, Sexual Assault Epidemic in U.S. Military

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On the heels of a new military survey that the number of reported violent sex crimes jumped 30 percent in 2011, with active-duty female soldiers ages 18 to 21 accounting for more than half of the of the victims, we speak with Trina McDonald and Kori Cioca, two subjects of “The Invisible War,” a new documentary that examines the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the U.S. military, which won the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “Not only was I astounded by the numbers, but when I started talking to the women and men who had experienced this, I was just so devastated by their stories,” says the film’s Academy Award-nominated director, Kirby Dick. “These are women and men who are very idealistic. They joined the military because they wanted to serve their country. They were incredible soldiers. And then, when they were assaulted, they had the courage to come forward, even though many people advised them not to,” Dick says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn today to a new report from the military that finds suicides by active-duty soldiers hit another record high in 2011 and violent sex crimes jumped more than 30 percent. More than half of the sex crimes victims were active-duty female soldiers aged 18 to 21. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta held a news conference at the Pentagon in which he said sexual assault has no place in the military.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Sexual assault has no place in this department. It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families. As leaders of this department, we’re committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people.

AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made the comments just as a new film was premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, which this weekend won the Audience Award in Park City, Utah. It’s called The Invisible War. It’s a groundbreaking documentary that examines the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the U.S. military, the institutions that cover up its existence, and the profound consequences it has for its victims.

When Democracy Now! broadcast from Sundance last week, I spoke to the director of the film and two of the subjects, Trina McDonald and Kori Cioca, who told us their painful stories of experiencing sexual assault in the military. I began by asking director Kirby Dick, the Academy-nominated filmmaker, why he made The Invisible War.

KIRBY DICK: The film is about the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military, something that’s been going on for, really, generations. I think there’s no question that there’s at least a half a million men and women who have been raped or sexually assaulted over the last couple of generations. And that number could be over a million. And this is something that the military has really kept covered up for all that time.

Not only was I astounded by the numbers, but when I started talking to the women and men who had experienced this, I was—I was just so devastated by their stories. I mean, these are women and men who are very idealistic. They joined the military because they wanted to serve their country. They were incredible soldiers. And then, when they were assaulted, they had the courage to come forward, even though many people advised them not to. And when they came forward, they were the ones who suffered the consequences. They suffered the reprisals. And as a result, almost all of them, for example, have attempted suicide, that I spoke to. All of them have very severe PTSD. It’s devastating these lives are destroyed. And it’s really sad, because these would be incredible soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: Kori, tell us your story. When did you join the military?

KORI CIOCA: I joined the military in August of 2005. I always knew that I wanted to know join the military, ever since I was a little girl. When I first saw G.I. Jane, I begged my mom to shave my head, like because I just—that’s who I wanted to be. I saw these soldiers on television, and they were so strong and brave, and that was somebody that I wanted to be. I wanted them to make me into that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where did you first serve?

KORI CIOCA: I first served in Saginaw River, Michigan, and that is where I was—I was raped.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened, if you wouldn’t mind saying? And I know it’s very painful. You’ve done this for the film, incredibly brave to talk about it.

KORI CIOCA: When I first arrived at my station, my OD, who was my perpetrator—

AMY GOODMAN: “OD” means?

KORI CIOCA: Officer of the day. I apologize. When I first arrived, he was my sponsor. He was supposed to show me around, make me feel at home. And he asked me why I joined, and he knew I was—I was gung ho. I was “hard for the Guard,” is what they called it. And he came off as my friend, as someone who would, you know, take me under his wing and get me qualified and show me the ropes.

And he started with sexual advances. And when I denied those, he became more hostile. And I think he got to the place where he just hated me. And he didn’t rape me because I was pretty or that he wanted to have sex with me; he raped me because he hated me, and he wanted to show me that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, the great Ko-C that I thought I was, and he was going to make sure that.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did the attack take place?

KORI CIOCA: In his berthing area.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he get you there?

KORI CIOCA: It was almost like a setup. You have nightly cleanups. And I had—he would always give me extra duty. He made sure that other men were doing whatever they needed to do. I was the only female in my section. And one of my cleanups was to feed our station dogs, and I needed keys to the closet. If I did not complete a cleanup, he would have been in my face, screaming at me as usual. And it usually ended with him spitting in my face. It actually became daily that he would spit in my face. When he was in my face, I’d flinch, because I was just waiting for it.

So I asked a petty officer to go up with me to ask for the keys, and it got to a place where the men were even uncomfortable, because he would actually try to fight them. And they said, “I’m not—I don’t want to get involved, Cioca.” So I went up, and I knocked on his door, and I said, “I need the keys.” And he said, “Sure. Come on in here and get them.” And I said, “No, no. I’ll just wait right here.” And he started yelling at me and calling me a “disrespectful non-rate” and belittling me. So I’m just like waiting for him to hand me the keys, and I’ll go away with, you know, my verbal abuse. And he told me to “get in here” again. He was almost like three feet away from me, and he was holding out the keys, almost taunting me. And he said, “Here.” And I said—you know, reaching for them. And as I reached for them, he grabbed my arm and the back of my hair bun and dragged me in.

A couple weeks prior, I was hit before I was actually raped. And when I went to my command after being hit—

AMY GOODMAN: How did he hit you?

KORI CIOCA: We had got done with training. It was “Taps.” It was time for bed. And the way my berthing area was set up, it was in a U shape, so I was cornered. And he had come in, and he would drink on duty, and he was drunk. I could smell the liquor. And he had an erection. And he had asked me what I was doing, and I said, “I’m—you know, I’m trying to change out. Could you please leave?” You know? And he came forward to me, and I’m trying to get louder to—hopefully one of the men would hear and come up, and he would leave. And he reached out my hand, and he made me touch him. And when I felt him, I took my left hand, and I pushed him against the chest, and I tried to yell, like, “Get away from me!” And when I yelled, he hit me across the left side of my face. And I remember hitting my closet. I don’t know if I—I don’t know if I blacked out. I just remember holding my face in pain, and I looked up, and he was gone.

And I just—I was just running to my car, because my car was my only safe place. It’s the only place that he didn’t have keys to get into. And on the way down, I was crying and holding my face. And one of my shipmates, one of the males, was, “What was wrong? Are you OK? What the hell happened to your face?” is what he said, because I had this huge welt, red mark on my face. I couldn’t even get out to him what had happened. And I could say is, “I was hit,” and I ran to my car.

They reported it to my command. And the men actually reported it. And they weren’t going to do anything until the ice symposium was over, because we were the center of intelligence for ice rescue. A bunch of officers come, and they train. Well, he was a—he was a trainer for these officers, so they could not lose him. They needed him for this. So they said, “We’re going to wait until the ice symposium to do” —

AMY GOODMAN: The command told you this.

KORI CIOCA: Yes, ma’am. “Before we do anything, Cioca. So, just go on.” So, I actually had to go to the emergency room one night because of my face and my neck hurting so bad, and they just prescribed me muscle relaxers. And I actually had to go to his room to make sure I could go to the emergency room for my face. And he made one of his friends go with me to the emergency room and go into the room with me and make sure that I did not say anything.

And then, a couple weeks later, after I was raped, I went to—directly to my command, my senior chief. I didn’t even put in a chit to go up the chain of command. I went straight to him. And when I told him this, and I was completely devastated, in tears, it was so embarrassing for me to tell someone that I had been brutally raped. He hit me during my rape. And he rolled his eyes, and he sighed at me, and he said, “Cioca, how many times do I have to tell you? We are not doing anything with him until after the ice symposium. And get out of here. Get.” So, I got to keep radio coms with him. I got to make him coffee. And after the ice symposium, they brought in CGI.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is?

KORI CIOCA: Coast Guard Investigators. They told me that I was not going to report the rape as rape, because he admitted to having consensual sex with me, although hitting me during it. So, they made me change my statement. They made other petty officers change their statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Other petty officers had said you’d been raped?

KORI CIOCA: They had seen him grab me, touch me, because it got physical. Even before this, he would find ways to touch me or like just—when we were in a hallway, just almost grind up against me, just any kind of vulgar way. And it’s like when I would lash out and get upset and get angry, it like turned him on. He thought it was funny. And it almost fueled his fire.

AMY GOODMAN: Kirby Dick, this is not unusual. In the film, you point out 20 percent of all servicewomen have been assaulted while serving.

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, the number may be even higher than that, but yeah. I mean, these are from Department of Defense statistics that we’re talking about. I mean, the military has known about this for a long, long time, and they have really—I mean, the problem is, is this perpetrator, this assailant, has probably gone on to do this to other women, probably did it to other women before. I mean, rapists—most rapists are serial rapists. And in the military, when they have the kind of authority that someone above an enlisted person has, they can do exactly what they did with Kori, which is order them into positions, go ahead and rape them, and then they’re the ones who are believed, because they have the higher rank.

AMY GOODMAN: Trina McDonald, when did you join the military?

TRINA McDONALD: I joined the United States Navy when I—well, it was 1989, October of 1999—or ’89.

AMY GOODMAN: And where did you grow up?

TRINA McDONALD: I grew up in western Kentucky, very small town. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What did your parents do?

TRINA McDONALD: My father was a coal miner, and my dad—or my mom was a nurse.

AMY GOODMAN: And were you the first in your family to go into the military?

TRINA McDONALD: No, my grandfather was in the U.S. Navy at one point in time, when he was a young man.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about where you ended up first.

TRINA McDONALD: Well, I went to boot camp in Orlando, Florida, and school in Orlando, Florida, and then was assigned a duty station in Adak, Alaska, which is in the Aleutian Islands. I got there on Valentine’s Day, 1989. And within two months of me being there, I was drugged and raped for the first time.

I had had a few drinks, you know, just hanging out with my friends, and had a few drinks, and then I started not to feel very well. And I was like, “Well, I’m going to go off,” because there was a larger room, so I decided I was going to go lay down for a little bit, because I just—it was almost like I couldn’t walk, you know, and so I went, and I laid down. And I woke up to seeing him in the doorway. And I started to try to get up and fight. He shoved me back down on the bed. And as I continued to try to fight, he undressed me, you know, got my pants off, and eventually put a pillow over my head. And all I could hear were things going on around me. People, you know, knew where I was, but no one did anything. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Did you report it right away?

TRINA McDONALD: I didn’t report any of my attacks. I had multiple rapes when I was in Naval Security Group, Adak.

AMY GOODMAN: Why come forward now if you didn’t come forward then? What caused you to speak out?

TRINA McDONALD: Probably because I didn’t have the opportunity to come forward then, because the people that were involved in my assaults were police personnel, security personnel, higher-ranking officers, the people that I would have gone to and reported. And so, I have never had the opportunity to actually report it to anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: In the film, The Invisible War, there is a lot of discussion of professional retaliation.

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

CAPT. DEBRA DICKERSON: If a man gets accused of rape, it’s a setup, the woman is lying.

REBECCA CATAGNUS: I could choose to report it, but if I wasn’t—you know, if they found that what I saying wasn’t to be truthful, then that I would be reduced in rank.

ALLISON GILL: 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: Even with the rape kit and everything, and the—my friend catching him raping me, they still don’t believe me.

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

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

TIA CHRISTOPHER: They took me before my lieutenant commander. He says, “You think this is funny?” And I say, “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?”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Invisible War. How invisible is this, Kirby Dick?

KIRBY DICK: Well, I mean, I think there’s a lot of people who know about this. I mean, the problem is, is that no one at the top is saying, “We’re going to change this.” No one is saying that “we are going to go after these serial rapists and prosecute them and investigate them.” And one of the reasons for that is the commander. A commander of a unit can make that decision. He can decide, or she can decide, no matter what the evidence, we’re not going to investigate it. And if he decides to investigate it and that investigator comes back and says, “We have a slam-dunk case,” he can decide not to move to a court-martial.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta just made a statement. Is there any chance it’s related to this film coming out?

KIRBY DICK: It’s—I would assume so. I mean, I—

AMY GOODMAN: Has he seen the film?

KIRBY DICK: No, he has not seen the film. He has not seen the film.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he say?

KIRBY DICK: Well, he reiterated some programs that he put in place, I think about a month ago. They’re good programs, but they’re really working very much around the edges. You know, from the many people I’ve spoken to who know Leon Panetta, you know, they respect him as a secretary of Defense. But I don’t think he has yet, you know, done what he needs to do.

I mean, actually, this is an opportunity to create a legacy. They did a wonderful job with integrating the military. I mean, in the early '60s, the military was much worse in terms of racism than the general society. By the end of the late—by the late ’70s, it was much better. It was an incredible accomplishment, and they can do the same thing with this. It just takes the will from the top, from the administration, you know, from the chiefs of staff, to say, “We're going to treat this—we’re going to protect these soldiers in the same way that we protect soldiers who are fighting a war.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., just a mile from the Capitol.

DONNA McALEER: Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., is the most prestigious unit there is in the Marine Corps. This is the unit where the best of the best go. It is the Marine Corps’ showcase ceremonial unit. It handles presidents and dignitaries, security at the White House, the Silent Drill Team.

LT. ARIANA KLAY: After my deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2008, 2009, my command officer recommended me for the Marine Barracks Washington. I was excited. It was the tip of the spear, as far as the Marine Corps is concerned.

CAPT. BEN KLAY: She would stay at work late, and then she would drive home. And she’d call me, and she’d be on some kind of little high, and she’d talk about how she loved her job. She was this sweet person who was trying really hard—and succeeding.

LT. ARIANA KLAY: One of the first things I was told when I checked in was, “Don’t wear any makeup, because the marines will all think that you want to sleep with them.” And I thought, that’s just ridiculous.

LT. ELLE HELMER: The atmosphere, off the bat, at Marine Barracks Washington was horrible. People asked me what sexual favors had I performed to get my orders there.

LT. ARIANA KLAY: There was a senior officer in my command who, the first time he spoke to me, he said, “Female marines here are nothing but objects for the marines to [blank].”

ACTIVE-DUTY MARINE: So, the minute a female shows up at my work, she’s immediately pounced on. All of the new females get talked about, saying that they’re having sex, sleeping with so-and-so. Apparently, I slept with all these men. And, I mean, I didn’t.

LT. ARIANA KLAY: It got progressively worse and worse. They determined that I welcomed the sexual harassment by wearing my regulation-length uniform skirt and running in running shorts. There were several junior female marines that came up to me crying, while I was there, saying that they felt too humiliated to come to work.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from The Invisible War. Kirby Dick is the director. Kirby, I don’t think most people are aware of the Marine Barracks. Explain what it is.

KIRBY DICK: Well, the Marine Barracks Washington is the premier Marine base in the country. It guards the president. It provides security at Camp David. It has a very prestigious Silent Drill Team, that you—actually you see that drill team in an actually quite impressively produced Marine recruiting commercial. But it is—there is—you know, it’s overwhelmingly male. As I was told, there’s, you know, only a few dozen females there at any time. And there’s an incredible—there’s just an incredible amount of harassment. And in units where there’s harassment, that very often leads to rape. And there is quite a number of rapes that we discovered there, too, that took place over the last several years.

AMY GOODMAN: This is very significant, one of the most elite places in the U.S.—

KIRBY DICK: Yeah, the most elite Marine base, actually, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: The stories told, for example, by one of the women—what recourse do they have? And why can’t—and this is true in all cases—why can’t you just call the police? You’ve just been attacked.

KIRBY DICK: I mean, actually, I’m going to let you answer that.


AMY GOODMAN: Trina or Kori.

TRINA McDONALD: Yeah, that’s not your chain of command.


KORI CIOCA: It’s not an option. I couldn’t even leave my base. You can’t leave without his permission for him to open that gate. And especially with the Coast Guard, we work closely with the fire department, the police department, and they—even with my protection order against my perpetrator, it got denied, even though they had to remove weapons from his home that he said he was going to use against me, when CGI came in. My personal protection order was denied.

AMY GOODMAN: Kori Cioca and Trina McDonald, two of the soldiers profiled in The Invisible War, rape survivors. The film just won the 2012 Sundance Audience Award for Documentaries. Speaking along with them, Kirby Dick, the director of The Invisible War. The film was co-directed by Amy Ziering. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We were speaking in Park City, Utah. The award ceremony was this Saturday night.

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