Staff Voices: A Review of “The Invisible War”

Staff Voices: A Review of “The Invisible War”

“The Invisible War” is an investigative documentary focused on sexual assault and harassment in the United States Military. The opening scenes use historic footage, including footage from the 50s-60s-era television show “The Big Picture” to announce the arrival of women in the US military. This imagery helps set the scene for the contributions of women across the military, ending with young helicopter pilots who are focused, determined and highly skilled.

The film goes on to tell the stories of several men and women who served honorably in  the military. I was inspired by their reasons for joining the military: stories of the pride they felt when they chose to join these elite forces. Several followed prior generations of family into the armed forces. For example, Lt. Elle Helmer could trace her family’s military service back to the Revolutionary War. Many were exemplary service members, earning numerous awards, kudos and recognition for their achievements.

Throughout the film, we spend time with many survivors, hearing each story as told to the interviewer.  This film is careful not to portray any footage of assault or harassment, but the stories are chilling nonetheless. Some were harassed and/or stalked while otherswere assaulted and injuredto the point of requiring medical attention. Several survivors reported harassment prior to their assault, and statistics show that incident of sexual assault are significantly higher in environments where sexual harassment is tolerated.

The documentary goes on to interview wives, husbands and a father of the survivors, clearly explaining how these experiences have changed them all. “The Invisible War” reveals the long-term psychological and physical consequences of rape for all involved. The survivors share their struggles with PTSD, depression, and suicidal thoughts in some particularly heart-wrenching narratives.

Throughout the film, Department of Defense (DoD) statistics are presented. Although the exact sources and dates of the statistics are not presented, the message is clear. Many have been sexually assaulted during their service and the pain endures long beyond their time in uniform.

Near the end, the filmmakers interview attorneys, victim advocates and the former and current Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention Office of the DoD. The filmmakers accuse the DoD of feeble attempts to make substantial changes to policy and a lack of effort to protect or assist the survivors. The footage of congressional hearings and portrayal of their legal struggles, make it clear that they have fought an uphill battle.

This film is well crafted by a seasoned documentarian. The intimate interviews, footage of former service members waiting for services and the depiction of their interpersonal struggles are difficult to watch. I believe Kirby Dick intended to create a film that would tell these stories in such a way that changes in policy would swiftly follow, increasing the rights of victims and providing them with more assistance. The frustration they feel as they try to manage in an overburdened system is palpable. The film demands change.

On a positive note, change is coming. In the past few months two important acts have been passed. In January 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act included several policy changes to prevent sexual harassment, enhance the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) program and modify reporting procedures for sexual assault. In addition, the Ruth Morris Act of 2013 has recently passed removing the burden of proof from sexual assault survivors in the military. I thank all service members for their service and hope that these new changes in policy will allow all of the service members to get the best care that we can provide.

For more information on the National Defense Authorization Act:

For more information on the Ruth Morris Act of 2013:

Directed by Kirby Dick, producer Amy Ziering, written by Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering,  who also served as interviewers.97 minutes, 2012. For more information on the film as well as changes that are in the works, visit the movie’s website at

Dr. Holly O’Reilly is a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the Center for Deployment Psychology’s headquarters in Bethesda, MD.