THE INVISIBLE WAR: RAPE IN THE MILITARY
A San Diego Navy vet speaks out in a deeply important and shattering new film
by Matthew Fleischer
“When you get raped in civilian life, you go to a court that’s independent and unbiased to seek justice and recourse. When you get raped in the military, your only recourse is to go to your commander, who knows you and likely knows your rapist.”
–Amy Ziering, producer, “The Invisible War”
Navy veteran Allison Gill says she was violated three times during her military service in the early aughts: once when she was raped by a fellow service member, once when she tried to report the crime and was told to go away, and a third time when she tried to get the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge her sexual assault-based PTSD and authorize treatment—only to denied and stonewalled for three years and counting.
“To go to countless therapy sessions and truly get to the place where you believe that this is not your fault, and then to be denied and denied and denied,” she tells WitnessLA, “it sets you back in your therapy. That’s a devastating thing for a survivor, to tell them ‘we don’t believe you.’”
Gill is one of the dozens of military victims of sexual assault featured in the new documentary The Invisible War, which opens nationwide Friday. The film offers an astounding portrait of military veterans living with the trauma of sexual assault—perpetrated by their brothers in arms. This epidemic of rape in the military is seemingly impossibly widespread. Since World War 2, nearly 500,000 military men and women have reported being raped during their service. 3,000 military on military rapes were reported in 2011 alone—and authorities think the actual number could be six times higher.
Almost worse than the act itself is the treatment these victims receive from military authorities when they attempt to report these crimes. I ran into Gill at a recent screening of The Invisible War at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and we spoke about the film and about her ordeal. “When I went to report my sexual assault to military police, I was told I was silly,” Gill remembers. “They said I’d been drinking, I’d put myself in a bad situation and I should ‘suck it up.’ They threatened that if I filed a report and it was found to be false, I could be dishonorably discharged. They talked me out of it.”
According to the film, 80 percent of military rape victims do the exact same thing—stay quiet.
“The thing that hits me like a ton of bricks was the barrage of women in the film who said the exact same thing as I did,” says Gill. “I’ve never met anyone that went through what I went through. It blew me away that everyone’s story is the same.”
That story too often includes Gill’s problem of getting the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge she suffers from sexual assault-induced PTSD from her attack. She first filed her claim 2009, was denied, she appealed, was denied again, and is still waiting for the results of her second appeal three years later.
Gill happens to be graded 30 percent disabled by the VBA, based on other injuries she suffered during her service, which entitles her to free medical care at the VA. But because the VBA refuses to acknowledge that sexual assault is the cause of her PTSD, she has to pay for any meds her therapist prescribes for treatment out of pocket.
It could be much worse. Military sexual assault survivors who have their claims denied, are not graded 30 percent disabled or more, or do not meet the minimum service threshholds, do not receive free care from the VA at all. They are subject to co-pays and other fees for PTSD treatment and other basic medical care.
Gill is very clear in distinguishing between the difficulties she’s had with the Veterans Benefits Association and the actual VA hospital system. Despite her ordeal, after getting out of the Navy, she wound up working for the VA in San Diego, a job that she loves.
“I’m a pretty patriotic person,” she says. “I wanted to serve my government in some capacity. I wanted to give back something. It made sense to me to give back to my country and serve veterans at the same time.”
Gill has found one unusual form of therapy to heal the mental wounds the VBA declines to acknowledge: standup comedy. The local press in her adopted hometown of San Diego has dubbed Gill the city’s “funniest woman.” (Incidentally, if you’re too busy to drive south to check out her act, she’s going to be at the Hollywood Improv on Friday August 10th.)
“The way I cope is I fill my life up with stuff to do, so I don’t have time to sit and think,” she says. “After my service I went back to school to get my master’s degree. I go to yoga 6 times a week. I’m always doing something, or on my way back from doing something. Some people medicate with drugs or alcohol. I medicate with having shit to do.”