A Call for Change: Helen Benedict on The Lonely Soldier and The Invisible War

The Invisible War © 2012 - Cinedigm/Docurama Films
The Invisible War © 2012 - Cinedigm/Docurama Films

While I was working on my 2009 book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, I published an early article on called “The Private War of Women Soldiers.” In it, I exposed my finding that between twenty and thirty percent of women in the military were sexually assaulted by their supposed comrades.

That article came out in March 2007, and even though women were serving in unprecedented numbers in the Iraq War by then, little had yet been written about them: how they were being used to fight in combat, how many of them were deployed, how they were already dying and being wounded in greater numbers than ever seen in the U.S. military, and how they were being treated as sexual prey even as they fought in our name.

The reaction to my article was instantaneous. I was contacted by radio, film, TV, and print reporters from all over the world wanting to interview me and my soldier sources. Among those who called were Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, who were inspired by my piece to make a documentary on the subject – the documentary now called "The Invisible War."

Meanwhile, I continued my reporting on the subject, publishing some fifteen articles about military sexual assault; my book, The Lonely Soldier, in 2009 from Beacon Press; and a novel on the same subject, Sand Queen, which came out from Soho Press in 2011 and is just being released in paperback this August 1.

My work resulted in invitations to testify to Congress twice on behalf of women in the military, which I did, and in a class action lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of service-members assaulted while serving, which is still going on to this day.

Yet, ironically, at the same time as I was receiving all this interest, I was being attacked. Almost every time I gave a lecture or a radio or TV interview on sexual assault in the military, someone called me a liar. People called or wrote in to say I was anti-military, my research was bad, I was an “advocate” not a journalist (i.e. biased), or that all my sources were “disturbed” and so unreliable. Never mind that my statistics came from The Department of Veterans Affairs and the military itself. Many simply refused to believe me, so upset were they by the epidemic of sexual abuse and corruption I was exposing within the military.

Then, two years after The Lonely Soldier was published, and a year after Sand Queen came out, The Invisible War was released, and the tune began to change.

The Invisible War brings to screen the same facts, figures, and types of stories that are in both my books, but because of the appeal and strength of film as a medium, it has had a reach that makes these matters seem freshly shocking and new. The result has been terrific. The film has been screened on Capitol Hill, it has galvanized statements from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and several members of Congress demanding improved accountability and prevention when it comes to sexual assault in the military, and it has raised public and press awareness of the scandal with remarkable success.

The Lonely Soldier, Sand Queen, and The Invisible War are perfect companion pieces, film and books together lending an authority to our research that people are finally accepting.

Now, all we can hope is that real change will be affected, bringing justice to predators, a sense of peace to those who have suffered and, eventually, enabling hundreds and thousands of women and men to serve our country without fear of being preyed upon by their superiors and comrades-in-arms.

Helen Benedict is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of The Lonely Soldier and Sand Queen.