Student-veterans bring major issues to light during annual film festival

After coming across an article about the prevalence of rape in the military more than two years ago, filmmaker Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering wanted to find out more. What they found was how little coverage there was on the subject of military sexual assault.

“We were shocked at how extensive the problem was, yet no feature documentary had been made and there wasn’t even a comprehensive book on the subject,” Dick said. “As we got further into our research and started speaking with survivors and hearing their stories, and hearing the same stories again and again, we suddenly felt compelled to make this documentary.”

The result of their initial curiosity is “The Invisible War,” a documentary that tells stories of tragedy followed by a measure of triumph — servicewomen and men who were victims of rape and how they responded by working to shed light on this deep-seated problem in the U.S. military. The documentary, distributed by Cinedigm and Docuramafilms, has won several awards, including the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

Dick and two subjects from the documentary traveled to Tallahassee on Nov. 12 for a special screening during the university’s second annual Student Veteran Film Festival, a Veterans Day event organized by the university’s Collegiate Veterans Association, Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association and College of Motion Picture Arts.

The film festival, part of the university’s broader efforts to become the nation’s most veteran-friendly campus, is intended to raise awareness of student-veterans’ issues and bridge the gap between veterans and the civilian community. The proceeds will benefit the university’s Student Veterans Center.

“Where veterans issues are concerned, Florida State University is special for three reasons,” said Billy Francis, a retired Air Force colonel who serves as the director of the Student Veterans Center. “First is the support for these efforts from the administration down to the faculty and staff. Second is the university’s vision to honor the past, present and future of our nation’s military with a proposed center to house a World War II museum, a student-veterans house and the university’s ROTC programs. Third is the student body at Florida State, which is the driving force in making this campus the nation’s most veteran-friendly.”

Student Veteran Film Festival Awards
“The Invisible War” director Kirby Dick, center, stands with Ryan Taylor, left, president of FSU’s Collegiate Veterans Association, and Nicco Spayde, president of the Interfraternity Council, after receiving the inaugural “FSU Student Veteran Torchlight Award for Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking.”

During the festival, College of Motion Picture Arts Dean Frank Patterson presented the inaugural “FSU Student Veteran Torchlight Award for Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking” to Dick. The award is intended to honor filmmakers who illuminate issues that affect veterans. In accepting the award, Dick underscored the purpose behind “The Invisible War.”

“Everyone in this film said they participated not to attack the military, but to make the military better,” Dick said. “I believe we succeeded in making that kind of film.”

Until recently, the decision to prosecute a sexual assault within the military was made solely by the unit commander, according to Dick.

“This has the potential to cause conflicts of interest and cover-ups,” Dick said. “The decision has been moved up the chain of command to the colonel or Navy captain, but it still resides within the chain of command. The decision needs to be moved outside of the chain of command.”

What’s more, conviction rates must be increased to effectively curtail the problem, according to Susan Burke, an attorney featured in the documentary who frequently represents women and men who were raped or sexually assaulted while on active duty in the military.

“Sexual predators tend to be repeat offenders,” Burke said. “If you don’t put them in jail, you are going to have more victims. When there is a history of failing to convict, you are going to be left with a huge sexual predation problem that is not going to get fixed until you go fix the traditional system of justice.”

Army Sgt. Myla Haider, who alleges that she was raped in 2002 while interning in South Korea with the military’s Criminal Investigative Command, attended the screening because of her passion to ensure that veterans’ issues are addressed in meaningful ways.

“Many veterans carry lots of burdens that aren’t being addressed,” Haider said. “Our ‘thank you’ to veterans must include a genuine recognition of what they have gone through.”

Haider added that addressing dysfunction in Department of Defense policy or issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or suicide rates among service members are acts that show support for the community of veterans and should not be viewed as an attack on the military.

“Facing this kind of issue is a protection of the most sacred duty,” Haider said.

Ryan Taylor, a Marine Corps veteran and president Florida State’s Collegiate Veterans Association, echoed Haider’s sentiments.

“Some would say this film is not patriotic, but coming from my perspective of wanting to make the military a better place, I see it as intensely patriotic,” Taylor said. “I like the approach that Florida State is taking and the films we have been picking (for the film festival). We’re here to tackle the tough issues, and we’re not afraid to have that conversation. It makes me very proud.”