LEXINGTON, Ky. - In 2011, the Department of Defense reported about 28,000 violent sex crimes in the military. But why do outside estimates put the numbers much higher? And why do most service members choose not to report their assault? WUKY Reporter Chase Cavanaugh has the details on an upcoming local screening of an Oscar Nominated film that hopes to answer these questions.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Through events like Take Back the Night, groups across the commonwealth are fighting back against rape and sexual abuse. A highly acclaimed documentary playing this Saturday at the Kentucky Theater, hopes to expose these crimes from within a major U-S institution.
"The Invisible War is about rape in the military, and it documents the stories of probably about 30 different survivors of sexual assault," said Pearl James, English professor at the University of Kentucky. Her department is helping bring the film to Lexington.
The survivors come from all branches of the military, and some are sharing their stories for the first time. Others, like Kentuckian Hannah Sewell, want to bring the pattern of violence out into the open and she speaks quite candidly about her harrowing experience.
“My main nerve in my spine was pinched in three places, and my hips were rotated. I could barely walk. I had collapsed due to muscle spasms in my back, because my back was injured during the rape," Sewell recalled.
Hannah was assaulted while training in Illinois, and the rapist said that he “owned” her body. Although she reported the attack, the Navy didn’t pursue Hannah’s abuser. For her father Jerry, a Command Sergeant Major in the Kentucky National Guard, this absence of justice engendered a strong sense of betrayal.
"With all the briefings we’d sit through. I had to believe the system would take care of this situation. And when it didn’t, that really just irritated me," he said.
Hannah’s situation is not unique. Many of the film’s survivors were pressured into not reporting their abusers, and evidence was often lost if they did. Even when convicted, most abusers had their sentences significantly reduced. Invisible War editor, Douglas Blush, says this is due to a lack of transparency in the military court system.
“The U-S military is very insular and closed, and because of that, you tend to have a lot of power structures that don’t allow you to shine much light into things. I think I’ve learned you have closed systems and they are ripe for abuse," Blush said.
Abuser’s cases were often overseen by their commanding officers. If these soldiers received a felony conviction , it would reflect poorly on their commander’s record. Because of that there was little incentive for prosecution.
In an attempt to hold the military accountable, Hannah and other survivors told their stories to several members of Congress, while filing suit against the Department of Defense. Although their motion was later dismissed, Blush says that Invisible War has already elicited positive change.
“The military, instead of pushing back at us has actually embraced the film, and is using it as a training assistant for troops and commanders. That’s about the greatest thing we could hope to happen.”
Hannah continues to speak up about her experience, while her father regularly shows Invisible War in sexual assault classes at the National Guard.
Invisible War will be screened in the Kentucky Theatre at 10:00 AM this Saturday. Following the film, Hannah, her father, and other survivors will be present for a question and answer session. The event is free and open to the public.