Last night I served on a panel after a screening of the Invisible War in Pittsburgh, PA. The event, the first of its kind hosted by Public Source, was a culmination of a series of investigative stories on the experiences of veterans returning to the Pittsburgh area. The film, which debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and won several awards, documents the harrowing journeys of service members who experienced sexual violence, perpetrated by other service members. This is all too common. Actually, sexual violence at all is too common, but that’s another digression.
The military system has made several changes to try and address this issue, particularly after a task force convened and a congressional directive was passed in the early 2000s. This created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) on military bases, an adjusted reporting system, and some time and energy dedicated to prevention and risk reduction campaigns. More recently, the military implemented a Safe Helpline, which provides options, connections to both military and civilian support people, information, and support for service members who’ve experienced sexual violence. All of these efforts are great, but it is a very long road to get to truly effective prevention and response. In the meantime, many service members still struggle through re-traumatizing systems, still experience sexual violence at alarming rates, still feel limited in their options, still face barriers to reporting, still experience professional backlash, still aren’t believed, and still need more changes to a system that they are required to rely on for help.
One astute audience member asked a great question: “How does the issue of rape in the military compare to rape in a civilian setting?” In many ways they are similar. Civilian victims are also very commonly raped by people they know and trust. It’s very common for a civilian rape victim to experience victim-blaming by the people and systems around them. The justice system can be a traumatizing experience for anyone. After sexual violence, families, homes, jobs, and overall well-being can and often are impacted negatively. What’s different is that folks in the military live, work, play, learn, and operate within one controlled structure. The justice system is separate, the support system is separate, and free choice in self-care is limited.
This issue is one that seems to be popping up on the anti-violence movement’s radar a lot lately. At many of the state and national conferences I’ve attended in the past couple of years there have been workshops, discussions, keynotes, or film screenings related to military sexual violence. I think this crossover of issues is crucial to accountability and to building informed, meaningful systems that will truly make a difference.