"Invisible War": sexual assault in the military

Apr 12, 2013

Navy Seaman Recruit Hannah Sewell embraces her father, Sergeant Major Jerry Sewell, from "The Invisible War", a Cinedigm/Docurama Films release.
Credit Cinedigm

The U.S. military faces renewed pressure to prevent sexual abuse within its ranks. A documentary about the problem called The Invisible War will be shown in Kalamazoo on Monday, April 15th, and in Battle Creek on Tuesday, April 16th. The screening at Western Michigan University’s Little Theatre on Oakland Drive starts at 6:30 p.m. The Battle Creek showing in the Binda Auditorium at Kellogg Community College starts at 5:30 p.m.

The showings were organized by Angela Moe and Mary Asmonga-Knapp. Moe is a professor at Western Michigan University. Asmonga-Knapp is on Western’s Board of Trustees and is a sexual assault response coordinator for the Defense Department in Battle Creek.

Asmonga-Knapp says the recent Senate confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel included startling statistics about the magnitude of sexual abuse within the armed services. Former defense secretary Leon Panetta told senators that 3,191 cases of rape and other kids of abuse were reported in 2012. But Panetta went on to say that the actual number of assaults was probably closer to 19,000. Asmonga-Knapp says that’s because more than 86 percent of military sexual assault cases are never reported officially.

Abuse survivors interviewed in The Invisible War say their complaints were ignored, or provoked threats of retaliation, including murder. At least one reported abuser received a military award after charges were filed against him.

Asmonga-Knapp says the figures reflect problems within the military as well as the nation as a whole. She says getting a handle on the problem becomes ever more urgent as women increasingly take on “war fighting” roles once reserved exclusively for men. She says pressure to stay loyal to a soldier’s unit can make it very hard for soldiers of both sexes to come forward with charges of sexual abuse. Asmonga-Knapp says the Defense Department is trying to address the problem.

After the showing of The Invisible War at WMU there will be a panel discussion. It will include Asmonga-Knapp as well as Joetta Carr, a professor of gender and women’s studies at WMU who is also a counselor working with abuse victims. The panel will also include a retired Vietnam-era Air Force veteran and retired USO contractor.

Asmonga-Knapp and Moe both say the hope the showing of the film will raise public awareness of the issue and empathy for those who have been abused in uniform.