By Marisa Demarco
— Thirteen men were interviewed for Justice Denied, a documentary about rape in the U.S. Armed Forces.
They came from many branches of the military, and they ranged in age and ethnicity.
And they all told the same tale, says co-director Michael Miller. They were sexually assaulted. They were re-victimized by the military. They went on to live tough lives. Some recovered. Some didn’t. Until recently, most of the men thought they were the only ones it had happened to, says Miller, who is also a veteran. “This film is not for the faint of heart.”
Miller and two fellow Albuquerque residents embarked on a mission to educate people about what’s been called the military’s secret shame. Their documentary will screen tonight at the KiMo Theatre. (Details below.)
In 2012, an estimated 26,000 members of the military were assaulted, according to the Department of Defense. And statistics indicate the proportion of people reporting the problem has decreased: It’s at just about 9 percent.
Most people who are assaulted—56 percent—are men. “Any time there’s a closed system like that where you have a power differential, sexual trauma is a tool,” Miller says. “It’s not about the sex. It’s about power, domination and control.”
Michael Matthews was 19 and in the Air Force when it happened to him. He was walking from the chow hall to the barracks through a construction zone, when he was knocked unconscious from behind. When he came to, two guys were holding him down, he says, and one was sodomizing him.
Matthews didn’t tell anyone. “They’d have kicked me out,” he says, “just like they do to men now, and women, too.” He kept it to himself for three decades. In that time, he made five suicide attempts. “I didn’t realize I had PTSD.” He would lash out, he says: If someone grabbed him, just messing around, there was a good chance of Matthews injuring would-be joker. He always had to have a clear view of the door in a public place. He would constantly scan the room, unable to make eye contact with his dinner date. “I made sure it was never going to happen to me again.”
Some of those habits will never die, he says. Geri Lynn Weinstein Matthews, Michael’s wife and the film’s co-director, adds wryly that Military Sexual Trauma is the gift that keeps on giving. “It affects relationships, significant others, children,” she says. “It passes on generationally. People don’t realize there is help. It can really disturb a family system.”
There’s a stigma, too, preventing military men from finally beginning to speak up about what happened to them, her husband adds. “Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to admit it’s happening to men.”
Another big problem, says co-director Miller, is that there is no good recourse if someone is sexually assaulted. Right now, a soldier would be expected to go up the chain of command. “If the next higher level is the perpetrator, and they can’t go outside the system, nobody can help them. There’s not a mechanism for it.”
They’re calling for a tribunal to hear these cases that includes civilian oversight and expertise for investigations. Complaints have to be taken outside of the chain of command so anonymity can be preserved if need be. There must be a safe place to report sexual assault, and real action must result.
Measures are moving through Congress to address rape in the military, but Weinstein Matthews points out that they morph rapidly, and supporters really have to read them carefully before jumping on the bandwagon. The only bill the filmmakers support today is Rep. Jackie Speier’s Stop Act, which creates a separate office to handle investigations and complaints.
Weinstein Matthews acknowledges that there’s likely only a tiny portion of military members perpetrating these crimes. But because they go unpunished, she says, the violence is allowed to continue unchecked, adding to the incident tally probably for years. “That small percentage is like the tail wagging the dog.” If anything, she says, they hope their documentary raises awareness and inspires voters to put pressure on their elected officials to solve this problem.
Veterans Miller and Matthews say they are aiming to protect the young men and women in the military today. “To know about this and not try to do something about it, we’d be traitors,” Matthews says. “We’re patriots.”
Justice Denied World Premier
Part of the Albuquerque Film and Media Experience
Saturday, June 8 at 6:30 p.m.
KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW)