Documentaries at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival often take on big issues, and this year was no exception.
Among this year's offerings was a film and panel discussion about a rising epidemic of rape, sexual assault and gender discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"The Invisible War" follows the experiences of servicewomen raped in the line of duty, whose voices were hushed by a system that survivors say protects the good ol' boys at the expense of the victims.
As the ranks of female servicewomen have swelled, now accounting for 14.5 percent of active duty personnel, the prevalence of military sexual assault has also grown. The Department of Defense reports nearly 30 percent of women personnel and 1 percent of men are sexually assaulted during their enlistment, percentages that do not include reports of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
One in three enlisted women endure sexual assault during their military careers, according to the Defense Department, while one in six civilians will report a sexual assault in their lifetimes.
On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival hosted a panel discussion at the Movies at Midway to include the subjects of the documentary; an attorney who is part of the legal counsel in a class action suit against the U.S. government; and a researcher from George Washington University who helped to illuminate the issue.
The film follows two female soldiers enlisted in the Marines and Air Force. They were raped and often punished while watching their rapists rise in the ranks. Also attending the session was Vickie Bullard of Milton, an Army National Guard veteran.
With 80 percent of female veterans exposed to sexual harassment on-the-job, Bullard said she personally experienced discrimination in combat.
“Rape happened a lot,” Bullard said. “Either you shut up or you are going to be fighting everyone and their brother.”
She said a soldier who reports being raped usually must continue to work with their rapist, trusting that person with their life.
“That is really scary because when you leave the base at 4 a.m. for a convoy, whoever you told on is going to be watching your back,” Bullard said. “So you can either put up and shut up and know that your back will be covered, or you can not.”
Often, victims' rights fall on deaf ears, she said, as politicians and higher officers are unresponsive to complaints.
After suffering combat injuries, Bullard said, she returned home but was incorrectly taken off active duty. As a result, she was not paid, and she was unable to get medical treatment.
In addition to titanium plates that now replace two of her vertebrae and bones in her left hand, the veteran said she suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and vertigo as a result of her injuries.
“Myself and many other women have been told, ‘If you want to work a man’s job, then be ready for what we’re going to do to you,” Bullard said. “I’m done with them bullying me and walking right over me and treating me however they want. It’s like I don’t exist.”