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30 May 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:00pm

The Invisible War: rape is not an “occupational hazard” of serving in the military

Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary reveals the extent to which rape in the military is ignored and covered up.

By Caroline Criado-Perez

As the credits roll, and the post-screening discussion panel assembles at the front of the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise, no one speaks. The film’s relentless roll-call of violations has reduced us to silence:

  • Robin Khale US Marine Corps: It’s just after 3am, I see shadow of a human head over my body.
  • Ayana Defour US Army: Next thing you know, like I wake up and like he’s on top of me.
  • Christina Jones US Army: he pushed my legs apart and put himself on top of me and started pulling up my shirt.
  • Captain Debra Dickerson US Air force: and I wake up, and he’s on top of me. He’s already penetrated me.
  • Lee Le Teff US Army: He put his locked and loaded 45 at the base of my skull, engaged the bolt so that I knew that there was a round chambered.
  • Katie Webber US Army: All I could do was continue to concentrate on breathing.
  • Valine Demos US Army Medical Corps: when we got tested I had trich, and gonorrhoea and I was pregnant.

The New York Times said of Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War, that “this is not a movie that can be ignored”. It is a bitter irony for the women involved that one of the main things that cannot be ignored about this unflinching investigation into rape in the US military is how very ignored the many rapes it documents have been. Tia Christopher of the US Navy tells the filmmakers that when “they took me before my Lieutenant Commander, he says ‘d’you think this is funny’, I was like, ‘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?’” Rather than leading commanding officers to think the army might have a problem with rape, the sheer volume of sexual assault in the military leads them to think that the women who report it must be lying.

“I was ordered to drink. I was ordered to attend the drinking events”, says Lieutenant Elle Helmer. In the next shot, Lieutenant Adriana Klay confirms that at Marine Barracks Washington (the elite grounds of the US Marine Corps), the drinking events were “mandatory”. Helmer describes how “we went to various pubs and bars, and the goal was to do a shot at each one. All paid for by the Marine Corps”. The drinking events saw, Lieutenant Klay tells us, “senior officers […] drinking to the point of peeing in their pants, passing out on lawns, this is the norm”. When Helmer ordered a glass of water at one bar she was ordered to drink two shots to make up for it.

Eventually, Helmer tells us: “I left the bar to get a cab. My company commander followed me and said, ‘I need to talk to you about something’. So we walked up the stairs into his office. There was a little bit of a struggle. He tried to make an advance and tried to kiss me. I tried to leave and he slammed the door on my arms. I fell on the ground and hit my face on his desk, and the next thing I realised was I’d woken up wearing his shorts with all of my clothes off and in tremendous pain. I knew enough about me that something wasn’t right and I had felt entirely violated.”

Helmer reported the assault, and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service investigated for three days, before closing the case. Two days after that, the base commander began his own investigation. “The colonel at one point said, ‘You know, Liuetenant Helmer, boys, girls and alcohol just don’t mix. We’ll never really know what happened inside that office, only you and the major know and he’s not talking. So at this point, the investigation is closed for lack of evidence and we have reopened a new investigation, against you, for conduct unbecoming an officer, and public intoxication”.

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As horrifying as this sounds, Helmer got off relatively lightly: an investigation was at least opened, even if nothing came of it. She was investigated for the public intoxication that was forced on her, rather than the sex act that was forced on her – the charge of adultery was brought against no less than three other victims who spoke to The Invisible War. As one victim pointed out, “he [her rapist] was married. I wasn’t”. 

One of the main issues The Invisible War highlights is the unparalleled power of the commanders. “You appoint the prosecution, you appoint the defence, you appoint the investigator, you’re in charge of the police force, you’re in charge of the community. You own everything. You are judge, you are jury, you are executioner”, says Captain Ben Klay, husband of Lieutenant Klay who was also raped during her time at Marine Barracks Washington. These commanders are not legally trained and, as Major General Dennis Laich points out, they have an incentive not to take rape allegations seriously, since a rape is viewed as a “failure to command”, a judgment which would “adversely affect their career”.

Major General Mary Kay Hertog, Director of the Sexual Assault and Prevention Office (whose main remit seems to be producing truly abysmal anti-rape rap adverts and videos that tell women never to go anywhere without a “buddy” for fear of being raped), assures the film-makers that “there is absolutely no conflict of interest” for commanders. And yet, beyond the career concerns that result in so many investigations being abandoned or not even initiated, The Invisible War reveals that 33 per cent of victims did not report because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist – and 25 per cent did not report because the person to report to was the rapist.

Back in Kensal Rise, Emma Norton, solicitor for the human rights organisation Liberty, is on the discussion panel, assembled here to place The Invisible War, released two years ago (although never on general release), in a UK context. She has been working with victims of rape in our military, and tells us that the situation here is marginally better. But only very marginally.

Sharon Hardy, sister of Anne-Marie Ellement, who was allegedly raped by two of her Royal Military Police colleagues, was also on the panel, and told us a story that, by this point, sounded horribly familiar. The investigation into Ellement’s alleged rape was conducted by the Royal Military Police; it was overseen by an army prosecutor “who had not done the basic rape training that all CPS lawyers do”. No charges were brought – and Ellement then faced eighteen months of relentless bullying. Eventually, she killed herself.

In the UK the commanding officer should refer serious offences to the service police – indeed, in nearly all cases he (and, as Norton says, it nearly always is a he) is required to refer those offences to the service police. The 2006 Armed Forces Act only excludes three offences from this requirement, oddly, or perhaps predictably, all three are sexual in nature: voyuerism, exposure, and sexual assault. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, in February, pointing out this discrepancy led to “an obvious and unacceptable risk of injustice”, and asking him to address it. She has yet to receive an answer.

Emma Norton explains how the military is “a very different environment [from civilian life], because you’re living with people, you’re working with people, you’re socialising with people, and if something like [rape] happens to you and it’s the people who you trusted who do it to you, the effects can be devastating”. And in a culture where women are more often than not assumed to be lying (“even with the rape kit and everything, and my friend catching him raping me, they still didn’t believe me”), these ties hit the victims twice: once when they are raped, (Brigadier General Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist in the US Army reveals in The Invisible War, that the effect on the victims is “akin to what happens with a family with incest”) and again when they report, where they, rather than the men who raped them, are framed as the aggressor who has split up the family.

In Ellement’s case this false framing of the victim as the trouble-maker resulted in her being called a slag, a slut, the girl who cried rape, and ultimately, in her suicide; for nearly every woman interviewed for The Invisible War, it resulted in the end of her career. “If I have a difficult time with anything”, says Myla Haider, who used to be a Sergeant at the Army Criminal Investigation Division, “it’s about the fact that I had an almost ten year career, which I was very invested in, and I gave that up to report a sex offender who was not even put to justice or put on the registry and he’s probably doing the same thing right now”. Indeed, the final film credits reveal that “Myla’s assailant [who had raped several other women in the army CID] became a supervisor at a major US corporation and sexually assaulted a female employee”.

We should not be under any illusion that the civilian system is fit for purpose – it’s not. Of all the rapes that are reported in England and Wales (and the vast majority never are), only 6.5 per cent ever secure a conviction. The no-crime rate (when police decide that a reported crime is, in fact, not a crime) for rape in England and Wales is over three times that for overall recorded crime. But Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape, the third panellist, revealed that in the UK military, the conviction rate for reported rapes is 1 per cent. Even if we look at the conviction rates for cases that actually make it to court, Longstaff points out, whereas civilian court convictions stand at 63 per cent, in court martials the rate is 16 per cent.

In 2011, lawyer Susan Burke filed a suit on behalf of sixteen victims of rape against former US Secretaries of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Robert M Gates, for their respective roles in the military’s “systemic failure to stop rape and sexual assault”. The case was dismissed, with the court ruling that rape was an “occupational hazard” for military personnel. In the current culture of the military, where sexual harassment is dismissed as banter (despite studies showing that in units where sexual harassment is allowed, incidents of rape triple); where a Navy study found that 15 per cent of incoming recruits had attempted or committed rape before entering the military; where 20 per cent of female veterans have been assaulted while serving, perhaps that is an accurate assessment. Certainly, all the subsequent appeals and cases that Burke has filed, have all been dismissed on the basis that rape is an occupational hazard of serving in the military.

Back in the UK, the Anne-Marie Ellement rape case has been re-opened. There is a degree of independence this time: half of the investigation is being handled by the civilian rather than the military police. But the case will most likely be tried in a military, rather than a civilian court, since the alleged rape took place overseas. Assuming the case gets to court, that 16 per cent conviction rate doesn’t look good. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here: the 1 per cent conviction rate for reported rapes means that, despite the media scrutiny, despite the watchful eye of Liberty’s lawyers, the Ellement case is by no means guaranteed to even be granted a hearing, partial or fair.

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