What Happens in the Military Doesn't Stay in the Military

In this June 22, 2012, image made from video, female airmen march during graduation at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio
In this June 22, 2012, image made from video, female airmen march during graduation at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. A widening sex scandal has rocked Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, one of the nation's busiest military training centers, where four male instructors are charged with having sex with, and in one case raping, female trainees. (AP Photo/John L. Mone)

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.

I've been an advocate working in the movement to prevent violence against women for many years, and I don't think I've ever seen a film move the needle on a social issue as quickly and decisively as The Invisible War.

Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring set out to not only tell the story of the epidemic of rape in the United States Military but also to seek justice for military sexual assault survivors. The film exposes not only rampant sexual assault at a rate double that of the civilian population, but also describes the systematic cover-up and punishment of the few survivors brave enough to report it.

When I first viewed the film at a private screening before its release, I knew instantly that it was a film with a point of view and a call to action worthy of a large audience and widespread support. The Invisible War is an example of documentary film as advocate! The staff and Board of Directors of Peace Over Violence were unanimous in selecting The Invisible War to receive the 2012 Humanitarian Award for Advocacy. We also screened the film on Denim Day in LA and USA and use it as part of our ongoing sexual violence prevention education campaign.

This spotlight on sexual assault is obviously extremely important for the military and also beyond because of the potential impact on civilian society. Why? Because what happens in the military doesn't stay in the military. It comes home. The harmful attitudes and misconceptions surrounding sexual violence persist inside and outside the military --- such as blaming the victim, not believing that an assault happened, or suggesting that the victim invited it.

Once the leadership in the armed forces takes on an issue they carry out the mission throughout its ranks. The military was successful in racially integrating the armed forces once the decision was made to do so and policies and expectations were put in place. That change rippled into the rest of society. Women have entered the military in record numbers and do every kind of job available, but they serve without assurance that they can seek justice without prejudice if they are raped or sexually harassed. For those policies to be put in place will take leadership from the top followed by training, training, training.

Experience on implementing sexual harassment prohibitions in the workplace shows that for change to happen within large institution, leadership and commitment has to come from the top. The service branches are also a workplace. Leaders are responsible, and leaders need to be held accountable.

The film has been viewed and no doubt studied by a myriad of military leaders including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who after seeing the film took the action to transfer the decision to prosecute a rape allegation out of the unit commander's hands and up to the rank of colonel. This is just the beginning.

The voices of the military sexual assault survivors in The Invisible War bring authentic testimony about the abuses in a flawed system. Now it's up to the rest of us civilians to ally with them to demand and expect changes in our military to rid our armed services of military sexual assault. Then, in time and in turn, perhaps lessons learned from our military will translate into policies, practices and cultural norms change that will help rid civilian society of its problem of sexual violence.

Recipient of the California Peace Prize and a Stanton Fellow, Patti Giggans is the Executive Director of Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit social service agency based in Los Angeles dedicated to building healthy relationships, families and communities free from sexual, domestic and interpersonal violence.