A Different Kind of Invisible Wound

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A new documentary called The Invisible War, from award-winning filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, exposes a brutal reality that affects far too many within our military community. It also provides an important framework to understand the impact of military sexual assault on those who serve and their families.

It sets the stage for discussions and actions that must be taken if we are to protect those who defend our country from attacks that can occur from within. And it confirms that we must ensure that services are available for those who have already been harmed. Despite the Department of Defense’s existing “Zero Tolerance Policy” toward sexual assault, such cases have continued to rise in recent years. In 2011 alone, 3,192 men and women reported that they were sexually assaulted while serving in the military.

The Invisible War tells the stories of several brave men and women who step forward to share their experience of being sexually attacked while in the military. Apparently, hundreds of veterans were interviewed for this project and their stories were strikingly similar.

These men and women choose to serve our country by joining the armed forces—and are devastated by the assault they experience and the lack of support they receive from the institution they have devoted themselves to.

Understandably, this type of attack and betrayal often leads to the development of severe mental-health difficulties for the men and women who are its victims. Indeed, today many of the female veterans treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs and other programs receive a diagnosis of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The film also explores several compounding factors: military sexual-assault survivors lack access to a fair and transparent justice system, and they are often subject to continued exposure to the attacker. That can result in repeated trauma, ridicule, and reprisals — both personally and professionally.

Sexual assaults in the civilian world are underreported. But in the military, survivors typically remain silent even more loudly.

The Department of Defense reports that an estimated 86% of service members do not report an assault when it occurs. One contributing factor appears to be the fact that for 25% of military sexual assault survivors, the person they would report the assault to is the perpetrator.

Some who do report the attack are subject to retribution and “second victimization” during the investigation. This exacerbates the development of serious mental health conditions including depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

In fact, Military Sexual Trauma is the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among female veterans, surpassing combat trauma. These mental health repercussions increase the likelihood of other serious and devastating conditions such as substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide.

On June 22, The Invisible War will begin showing in select theaters across the country. To do more than merely watch, click here.

My organization, Give an Hour — which offers free mental-health care to returning troops, their families, and their communities — is proud to support this important documentary. It raises awareness about a devastating situation affecting those who serve our country—a situation that we can and must prevent.

The good news is that many within the military community are eager to address the issues that have resulted in these unacceptable violations of all fo which our military stands. President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have both spoken of their firm commitment to address the issue. Leadership is critical — and action is necessary — so that those who are vulnerable are protected, those who are injured are treated, and those who abuse are prosecuted and removed.

 Barbara Van Dahlen is a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist who founded Give An Hour, a private non-profit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with U.S. military personnel back from war.