Beyond The Battlefield, Soldiers Fight An 'Invisible War' The Invisible War looks at the ongoing issue of sexual assault in the military. Victims document the unsettling repercussions of reporting their assault within the military adjudication system. Part of an ongoing series of conversations with Oscar nominated documentary filmmakers.
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Beyond The Battlefield, Soldiers Fight An 'Invisible War'

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Beyond The Battlefield, Soldiers Fight An 'Invisible War'

Beyond The Battlefield, Soldiers Fight An 'Invisible War'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now, we continue our annual series of conversations on the films nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. "The Invisible War" investigates the extent of sexual assault in the military.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I got there in February. By April, I was drugged and raped for the first time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I had like a cold or a pneumonia-like symptom and so they sent me to get checked out. And while I was waiting to be examined, he came in and he helped himself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He said he was going to the bathroom and he came into my room and that's when raped me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The entire time I was screaming and yelling for help and for him to stop. Nobody came to the door, nobody came to help me, came to my rescue or anything.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: They made it very, very clear that if I said anything, they're going to kill me. You know, and then of course I didn't have anyone to go talk to because the people that were perpetrating me were the police.

CONAN: If this is your story and if you've chosen to share it, what happened? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: You can join the conversation at our website at, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. The filmmakers behind "The Invisible War" are in our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Writer and director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering. Congratulations on the nomination.

KIRBY DICK: Thank you. Thank you so much.


CONAN: And, Amy Ziering, let's start with you since you interviewed the women featured into he film. And I wanted to ask you about one in particular we learned a lot about, Kori Cioca. She's - we first meet her, as she tells us and what we learn as a heart-breaking fashion, just how idealistic a young recruit she was.

ZIERING: Yeah. Kori was - joined the Coast Guard with just full of enthusiasm and idealism and only really wanting to serve her country and she thoroughly enjoyed her experience there and was a really great coastie as they call them. You know, young, feisty, really good at, you know, being a team player. It's sort of what everything she ever dreamed of and really appreciated the training she got in boot camp and the camaraderie and the rigor of the programs. So she was a really first rate soldier.

CONAN: And yet betrayed by her - one of her fellow soldiers.

ZIERING: Horrifically betrayed. It's a very sad story because she was such a high performer and well noticed in her unit and sort of got systematically singled out by one of her superiors and sort of repeatedly harassed, stalked, et cetera. She continually complained to her superiors but her plaints fell on deaf ears and the abuse escalated and ultimately ended up in a violent rape and a vicious, brutal attack which ended up dislocating her jaw and permanently causing damage.

CONAN: And we hear, well, painful details, not only of her injuries, her struggles to get those injuries taken care of by the Veteran's Administration then difficulties in getting her case investigated. Eventually, nothing happens. Kirby Dick, sadly, this story is not new. We've heard over decades now from officials and from senior officers that this time we really mean it.

DICK: Right. This is something we've been hearing for decades. You are correct. I mean, according to the Department of Defense, 19,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in the military just last year and of course if you multiply that back over the generations, that means hundreds of thousands of men and women have been sexually assaulted. And yet, even today they are still struggling to attack this problem. They have - it's long overdue that a problem should be addressed.

CONAN: And the well-meaning members of Congress from both parties express outrage, yet nothing gets done.

DICK: Well, I mean, part of the problem there is there aren't enough members in Congress who have actually stepped forward. The well-meaning ones have been fighting the fight now for a decade, but what it needs, obviously, is a majority to actually - the responsibility of Congress is to oversee the military, and they really need to step up and assume that responsibility.

CONAN: The film also makes it very clear that the structures in place that should make it easier for women to bring up their cases and see maybe justice done. Well, those are deeply flawed. Here's a clip of Miette Wells with the U.S. Air Force Security Police. These are the people who special investigate crimes like sexual assault and rape, talking about investigating these kinds of cases.


MIETTE WELLS: If rape cases came in, they were never given to women. The men always took care of those.

ZIERING: Why them?

WELLS: Because we were too sympathetic.

ZIERING: Is that a big ordeal?

WELLS: We couldn't see what was really going on because we always took the woman's side.

CONAN: And Amy Ziering, one of the saddest stories in the film is a story of a woman who was a criminal investigative service officer herself and suffered this fate.

ZIERING: Yeah. And I think you're referring to Myla Haider, and what's so sad about her case is that she had - she was an investigator so she knew better than to actually report, which is sort of very sad. She knew what happened in the aftermath of reporting that as bad as the assault was, the military's response to these crimes actually, you know, was to either blame the victim and, you know, protect the perpetrators. So given her experience investigating these cases and everything she had witnessed, she didn't actually first come forward and report her case for fear of experiencing those very same reprisals.

CONAN: Because she knew that she would be told, you stand to be charged yourself for making a false accusation.

ZIERING: Exactly. And in fact, Myla only decided to come forward five years later when she was approached by a group of women who were having a lawsuit against this very same perpetrator from various units. So she figured, OK, if these other officers are coming forward, their strength in numbers may be - might our case will be heard and given validation. And sadly enough, even with these five women, all filing charges against the same person, all women who did not know each other, the case was rejected, and justice was not served.

CONAN: And I have to ask, Kirby Dick, there's a sobering piece of analysis where on the film we see numbers and what happens to the disposition of these cases. It's an outrage.

DICK: Yeah. I know it is. I mean, people - justice is so rarely served that only 14 percent of men and women who are assaulted in the military actually report. Eighty-six don't report. And even of the ones that do report, very few go to court martial, and the ones that go to court martial, very - there are very few convictions, and of the convictions, there is very few other men serve substantial jail time. So justice is not being done at all.

CONAN: We've heard from civilian prosecutors that these kinds of cases are very, very difficult to prove.

DICK: That is true. That is true. But the military, unfortunately, has a very antiquated military justice system, and they've been unable to actually prosecute - investigate or prosecute these successfully.

ZIERING: And it's not - if I can just jump in, it's not really that these cases are necessarily that hard to prove. It's also that there's an inherent injustice in the military's judicial system in that the people that are adjudicating these crimes are directly in the same chain of command as the people who are, you know, either the plaintiffs or the assailants. So it's just - it's a sort of a rigged game. The commander knows everyone involved, so his sympathies are, you know, obviously, going to be tampered by his knowledge of the participating parties, and so there's no impartial oversight. And that's really the crux of the problem. The crux of the problem is not that he said-she said case. It's actually that there's this, you know, this system in place that doesn't guarantee impartial over-adjudication of these crimes.

CONAN: So the ultimate disposition of the case, the person who decides whether it goes ahead or not is the commanding officer?

DICK: Well, recently, Senator Panetta elevated that decision to the level of colonel or Navy captain. But he kept it within the chain of command. So there's still a conflict of interest. There's still many opportunities for conflict of interest. It has to be moved outside of the chain of command so that both the accused and the victim get impartial justice. These men and women are fighting to protect our rights, and certainly, one of our rights is the right to impartial justice. These men and women deserve the same.

CONAN: Then there's also the question about the lasting effect of these crimes. You argue in the film that trauma associated with sexual assault is particularly painful. And here's another clip from "Invisible Wars," Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist with the U.S. Army talking about why.


BRIGADIER GENERAL LOREE SUTTON: In the military when we're functioning at our best in a cohesive unit, with brothers and sisters, you know, the band of brothers and sisters, I mean, we are family. When that bond of trust is violated, the wound penetrates to the very most inner part of one's soul, one psyche.

CONAN: Amy Ziering, she says it's the equivalent of incest.

ZIERING: Yeah. When you're in the military, you feel like your unit - you're indoctrinated to believe, psychologically and philosophically, that this is your band of brothers. These are people who have your back. So imagine how much worse an assault is by your fellow soldier. It's actually hard for you to psychologically compute, and it does register as incest and an extremely profound core betrayal. I mean, it rattles these women and it made them extremely difficult for them to have trust in any relationships in the future. It's absolutely shattering, and I think that's something that the public at large doesn't really understand, and it's categorically different for women and men that are raped within the military.

CONAN: And men that are raped. You do also interviewed a couple of men who experienced sexual assault in the military. And, well, this also is a case that's not reported because, well, it's so difficult.

ZIERING: Yeah. Well, before don't ask, don't tell, if any man came forward and reported a sexual assault, they themselves were accused of having a homosexual encounter and asked, were they sure they wanted to report, you know, because - so imagine, you know, the incentive then to not come forward and disclose was extremely intense. And that's why many men were even further suppressed than the women in our U.S. military.

DICK: And I think what people aren't aware of is that as many men are - as many or more men are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military each year as women.

CONAN: Much smaller percentage but, of course, there are many, many more men in the military than women.

ZIERING: Exactly.

DICK: Correct.

CONAN: We're talking with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, filmmakers of "The Invisible War" with us from the studios of NPR West. We're - as we do every year, speaking with the people behind - the documentary is nominated for Best Feature Documentary. If you'd like to listen to our other interviews, go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

I wanted to ask you also about a choice you made as filmmakers. You went for the, I guess, might be described as the macro approach. You speak to many, many women to tell their stories in bits. You could have gone for the other approach, which was a micro approach; take one woman and tell her story in great depth. Why did you decide to make this film the way you did?

DICK: Well, we wanted to make the point that this is a systemic problem. This happens overseas. That happens at base - bases, back home and happens, you know, in every branch in the military.

I think up until this film came out, very few people were aware of that. There certainly was some reporting and there were a case here, a case there but people thought it was isolated. They thought perhaps the Air Force Academy scandal was just isolated to the Academy, and, in fact it's across the force. So what we thought was most important was to address this issue as a systemic problem because it's going to have to be solve as a systemic problem.

ZIERING: And to do so by not just focusing on one story but showing a whole scope of story so people really get a sense of the range and breadth of this epidemic.

CONAN: And this film does not even - it may have been made before the extent of what the scandal now at the Air Force base in San Antonio at Lackland Air Force Base.

DICK: Right. The film actually came out at Sundance last year in - just before the Lackland scandal that's breaking. And that, you know, it's continuing to break open even now as, you know, as we're speaking.

CONAN: One of the most interesting parts, and the most affecting parts of your argument, Amy Ziering, is that the women you speak with say almost to an individual that everybody who has been sexually assaulted or reported sexual assault in the military has to leave.

ZIERING: Yeah. Sadly, due to the lack of support after they report emotionally and psychologically. And due to the blowback they receive, a lot of them do sort of start to falter as soldiers, and they don't perform well in their duties. And they end up getting discharged with personality disorders ironically enough. And so, yeah, many of them are actually forced out of the military due to their inability to cope with the trauma of their assault and its aftermath.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you also. There is a case, a court case that you follow in the film. This is allegations that these women's civil rights and other rights were violated and rights to do process in the investigation of their cases. There is a doctrine that's supported by the Supreme Court. The case brought to federal court and then thrown out. You say at the end of the film it's under appeal.

DICK: Yeah. The case is under appeal. It was filed by Susan Burke. And it's really - the fairness doctrine, the decision by the Supreme Court in the 1950s was in - what we believe as an overreaching interpretation of a congressional statute, which the fairness doctrine basically says that, if you're - anything that happens to you while you're in service you cannot sue for. And it serves, for example, if a doctor operates on the wrong leg, you cannot sue for that. So these men and women are denied of their basic civil rights.

CONAN: And I also have to ask what kind of impacts this film has had. You mentioned you opened last year at Sundance. It's not a film that's - you wouldn't think would be commercially viable.

ZIERING: It's actually had a remarkable impact and we're very gratified and proud of it. In fact, after Sundance when we realized its power and that the response it was generating, we sort of had all these grass tops screenings and ended up getting it to the highest levels of not only the Pentagon but also our administration.

And Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ended up watching it as a result, and two days later held a press conference to announce those substantial changes that Kirby mentioned earlier. And he, in fact, credits the film in part with the reason for him taking that action. And we're continuing to pursue and lobby in Washington and the Pentagon to sort of further this cause in this issue along using the film as an advocacy tool.

CONAN: And how much difference is an Academy award nomination make?

DICK: It makes - well, a nomination makes - it makes a huge impact. Actually, every time there's attention paid to this film anywhere around the country, activity happens in Washington.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you both.

DICK: Thank you.

ZIERING: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, filmmakers of "The Invisible War." They joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Again, you can find all our interviews with the filmmakers behind Oscar's top feature documentaries at our website. That's at

Tomorrow, the final installment, that's going to be, well, talking to the director of "How to Survive a Plague," which chronicles efforts by HIV/AIDS activists get access to medication back in the '80s and '90s. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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