Military sexual assault seeps through the bonds of brotherhood and creeps into the bedtime sleep of victims, months and years after the fact. The Department of Defense estimates that 19,000 soldiers are raped or sexually assaulted annually, with less than 14 per cent coming forward to report it.

Friday night’s showing of the film The Invisible War, brought to the Vineyard by the foundation Protect our Defenders, presented patriots — both women and men — who have been traumatized by not only rape itself, but the aftermath within the uniquely rigid hierarchy of the military.

Nancy Parrish
Nancy Parrish. — Ivy Ashe

About a year and a half ago, Protect our Defenders president Nancy Parrish caught wind of what the secretary of defense is calling a silent epidemic: the long-standing issue of rape and sexual assault cases in the military being repeatedly ignored while predators go unpunished.

And after talking with friends like Rose Styron, Davis Weinstock and Maria Cuomo Cole — who was executive producer of the film — she was compelled to do something.

“I wondered what could be done with an issue that for 25 years had been languishing, with one scandal after another, starting with Tailhook in 1991, and really before then,” said Mrs. Parrish. “We began to fully understand the enormity of the issue for the country and for the amazing veterans. So Protect our Defenders was born and encouraged by so many friends and residents here on the Vineyard.”

In 1991 military sexual assault was first brought to the public’s attention by Paula Coughlin-Puopolo, known in the press as the Tailhook Whistleblower. Mrs. Puopolo was one of the 87 servicewomen sexually assaulted at the annual Tailhook Association Symposium.

Mrs. Puopolo is now one of the 25,000 supporters of Protect our Defenders, and within the past two weeks has helped put out a petition calling for Congress to hold an investigation and hearing on the most recent scandal at Lackland Air Force Base. Just last week seven more victims came forward from Lackland, with 38 female trainees now reporting they had been raped or sexually assaulted by 15 different instructors.

Maria Cuomo Cole
Executive producer Maria Cuomo Cole. — Ivy Ashe

“The Lackland scandal is public but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mrs. Parrish. “If you read the e-mails we receive or are on the receiving end of the phone calls we get, you would know that these stories are happening across the country every day.”

Susan Burke, an attorney who specializes in human rights work, partners with Protect Our Defenders and was interviewed in The Invisible War, attended the Friday screening.

“As a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, my work has been representing soldiers who have been hurt in different ways,” she said in an interview earlier in the afternoon.

In 2008 after she was approached by a civilian who had been raped by a soldier, Mrs. Burke started to research the issue.

“I was frankly shocked and realized it was a much more extensive and serious problem than I could have imagined,” she said.

With the support of Protect our Defenders, she has filed a series of lawsuits against the Department of Defense and service academies in which she is seeking judicial review of ongoing cases and also cases that have been dismissed.

She said that the problem with sexual assault in the military involves the lack of an impartial judiciary system. Instead of going to the police or even the hospital with a report, victims must report to their commanders and higher-ranked officers, who know both the victim and perpetrator.

“In a lay person’s term, it’s your boss,” she said. “Imagine you are raped and you have to report to your boss. There’s no impartiality there. Military life is different from civilian life — there’s a ladder of control. All of the forms of protection you have as a civilian if you were raped, they simply don’t exist. And you’re trapped.”

Not only that, Mrs. Burke said that no military commander wants a rape happening under his watch, so often cases are swept under the rug to save face.

Friday’s film gave voice to dozens of women and men whose lives were ruined not only by haunting rapes, but by the loss of their dignity and careers. One woman had been hit in the jaw during her rape and five years later had not received health coverage from Veterans Affairs. Most cases described in the film were either dismissed or ended in findings of adultery or indecent language, not rape. In some instances,, victims were discharged for having a personality disorder, leaving them with no VA benefits and only dim prospects for obtaining a good job in civilian life.

“This is why you really have what is not just the crime of rape, which is obviously traumatizing, but the trauma also comes from the following betrayal,” said Mrs. Burke. “They are raped and want to report it, but instead are retaliated against and lose their career. They lose their careers merely because they were victims of a crime. It’s just heartbreaking when you talk to these young patriots who have volunteered to serve our nation, put their lives on the line and this is how we as a society repay them.”

In addition to investigating and exposing problems within military service systems related to rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, Protect Our Defenders is also dedicated to public education and finding solutions to the problems it investigates. The organization has 200 survivors who work as advocates. It also gives small grants to support victim and survivor care, and through social media provides a place for people to share their stories.

“The reason why Protect our Defenders is so critical and really at the forefront of the reform movement is that they have a clear articulation of the policy reforms that are needed,” said Mrs. Burke. “They have stepped to the forefront of what was really a disorganized movement until their involvement.”

Mrs. Parrish added: “As Americans we have to step in and do something. It is silence that allows evil to grow. And this is fixable — that’s one thing that is unique about our country. This can be fixed. We just have to want to do it.”

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