Director hopes documentary 'Invisible War' inspires anger, change in US military

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TORONTO - It's difficult to watch "The Invisible War" without getting angry.

A portrait of widespread sex abuse in the U.S. armed forces and high-ranking military deceit, the searing documentary is designed to make a viewer's blood boil.

Oscar-nominated director Kirby Dick says he hopes that fury will inspire sweeping change.

"I always had a feeling that this film could really explode and change the discussion on it. That was the motivation," says Dick, whose previous documentaries tackled sex abuse within the Catholic church and closeted Republicans with an anti-gay agenda.

"We wanted audiences to walk out thinking this is a systemic problem and (for) those individuals in positions (of power) to feel that pressure. I think we were very successful in that regard."

"The Invisible War" documents a litany of brutal sex assaults that have shattered the lives of thousands of service men and women, most of whom were further victimized by military brass who dismissed their stories and in some cases punished them for complaining about attacks.

The statistics presented are sobering: more than 20 per cent of female vets have been assaulted while serving, and a female soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.

Hundreds of thousands of attacks have taken place in the last decade alone, and Dick suggests as many as one million men and women have been brutalized while in service since the Second World War.

"In the past, the Department of Defence has been able to say, 'Oh, it's a couple of people who have committed these assaults,' 'It's a phase,'" he says of the attacks.

"In fact, these assaults happen throughout the military and because I think our film makes this case very, very strongly — really for the first time — I think the military has been unable to really dodge it.... I think they've realized that this is an opportunity to try to change things."

The stories Dick uncovers are astonishing: there's Kori Cioco of the U.S. Coast Guard who is on a cocktail of anxiety medication and a diet of soft food after a commander broke her jaw and raped her.

Former marine officers Ariana Klay and Elle Helmer recount routine harassment at Washington, D.C.'s prestigious Marine Barracks, where both were threatened and raped.

Trina McDonald passed on a college basketball scholarship to join the U.S. Navy, where she was drugged and raped within two months of arriving.

None of their assailants have been punished, notes Dick, who steered clear of confronting the attackers himself.

"Many of them are really psychopaths and we did not want to put our subjects at risk," he says.

Because complaints must be filed through the chain of command, many victims feel they have nowhere to turn: 33 per cent of service women didn't report their rape because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist, while 25 per cent didn't do so because the person to report to was the rapist.

Dick says he's astounded by the lack of justice and psychological devastation these attacks leave in their wake. Because of the close-knit nature of military service, one expert describes incidents of assault as akin to incest.

Dick also focuses his lens on a disturbing military culture of heavy drinking, secrecy, retaliation, the unchecked clout of violent commanders and the failures of those in positions of power to do anything about it.

Once the film was complete, Dick's mission was to get his expose seen by as many power players as possible.

It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and since then has been circulating through the highest levels of the Pentagon and U.S. government.

Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta watched the film in April. Two days later, he directed military commanders to hand over all sexual assault investigations to a higher-ranking colonel, says Dick.

"But he kept it in the chain of command and he really needs to move it outside the chain of command," notes Dick, who says much more needs to be done.

"There's no question that this film has really changed the landscape on this issue both, I think, within the U.S. government and Department of Defence and within society as a whole," he adds.

"We're hopeful that now that the election is over that we're going to be able to help to push for even more changes."

"The Invisible War" comes out on DVD on Tuesday.

Organizations: Department of Defence, Catholic church, U.S. Coast Guard U.S. Navy Pentagon

Geographic location: U.S., TORONTO, Iraq Afghanistan Washington, D.C.

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