Over the past year, Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War has shone a spotlight on the issue of sexual assault in the military. Politicians and civilians alike are talking about this problem more than ever. While progress is slow, it seems the military will make some change. I spoke with Coast Guard veteran and rape survivor Kori Cioca, one of the film's main subjects, to see what she thinks about the film, her experiences in the military, and her life since the documentary's release.
NATASHA GUZMAN: I wanted to start by asking how you came to be involved in this film in the first place.
KORI CIOCA: I was contacted through Susan Burkes' office, and that's the lawyer of sexual assault, and she told me that there were some filmmakers making a movie about sexual assault in the military and they were wondering if I would be willing to do an interview with them. I said, "Well okay if it's just one interview." They came to my house and I spoke with them first to make sure that they weren't anti-military and that this wasn't going to make it look bad and they said, "We really just want to make the military better for people like you. That's our only mission, we're supporting our troops in that way." I was on board for that.
During the interview it was really scary. It's really hard to tell somebody that you've been raped because you don't know the response you're going to get. So many times I've had people just turn and walk away from me.
Yeah, I actually had a reporter walk away from me. I was at the Chicago Film Critics Awards and I was accepting the award for Best Documentary for the filmmakers, and I had a reporter walk up to me. She said, "Oh, are you accepting?" I said, "Yes, but it's for the directors, they couldn't be here." She said, "Oh, were you in the documentary?" and I said yes and she said, "What's it about?" I said, "It's about rape in the military, and I was raped and sexually assaulted." She literally just turned around and walked away. My sister was with me and looked at me and I said, "It's okay, this happens all the time."
That is one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard in my life. I'm so sorry about that.
Yeah. I'm from Ohio, and I have not gotten any type of support at all. I understand that there's no honor or valor in being raped in the military, but I see all these people in combat coming back and they get all this support. I understand it's a hard subject but we need that support too and we don't get it. I mean, I was in Newsweek's 150 Most Fearless Women last year, and it was really exciting to see something so positive come out of something so negative, so my mom called the local paper, and they put it in the obituaries.
In the film, you mentioned how much you loved boot camp and that you'd happily do it again. I assume this means that you felt pretty respected at that time, which is a bit different from some of the other women in the film who experienced sexual harassment right away.
When I was in boot camp, you couldn't even high-five someone of another gender. When you stood in a line, the men had to be even further from you, because the women could be touching each other. With the men, they had to stay back. I had one guy who came up to me because I'm very short, and he put his arm on my head and made a comment about me being small, and my company commander saw that and reverted him a week back. He didn't get to graduate with us. That was how it was.
So you were treated just as valuably the men in there.
Definitely. So then when I was at my first unit, it was like all the core values, all the discipline had [fallen] by the wayside. Everybody was lax, everybody didn't care. People were horrible with other people.
Was this because there was less supervision?
I think it was the leadership, because the leadership allowed it and tolerated it. You lead by example. If the command doesn't care that you're smoking or drinking on the boat, then that's okay. They talked about commanders that had left that station that would pass out pornographic magazines to all the guys, and that's what was tolerated.
You mentioned [in the film] that prior to the attack, this guy did a lot of obnoxious and intimidating things to you. Did you mention any of this to your peers, and if so, did they help you in any way? Or did they see it as a joke and not take it seriously?
At first they were joking. They would say, "Oh Cioca, can't you at least flirt with him so we can have a good duty block?" But when he started getting really intense with his words and his actions, they would step forward for me, but when they stepped forward, that's when he retaliated against them. He would be up in their faces trying to fight them, so after a while of that they weren't going to take that kind of abuse. The guys would just kind of look away and apologize to me later.
When you reported the rape, did [your peers] know about this or was it kept a secret?
Everybody knew. In the Coast Guard, our stations are real small, so I was one female out of eight men everywhere I went. They don't have very many females. These are very close-quartered stations, so if somebody sneezes everybody knows about it. That's the way it is, so everybody knew about it and what had happened.
Did you get any sort of support or were your shunned?
No, I was definitely shunned. I had other petty officers who would whisper to me that they were sorry, that they couldn't [support me] because they could lose their rank or they could get in big trouble for it. [This one man] had a family, and my perpetrator threatened to kill his family, so he said, "I'm sorry Cioca, but I need the safety of my family." At the time I didn't understand it, but having a family now I do, so I don't hold any hard feelings anymore. Because I was thinking at the time, "Why don't you help me? I need help. You're a petty officer, you're up in rank." Now I understand, because my perpetrator was unstable. He threatened my life all the time. At times I thought, "Just kill me and get it over with, I'm tired of it. Quit doing this, just get it over with." I didn't care anymore.
When you reported the attack, were you accused of lying?
Oh definitely. They made me change my statement twice. They told me I wasn't going to put rape in my statement because he admitted to having sex with me, but said it was consensual, but [also] admitted to hitting me during it. So they gave him an inappropriate relationship charge and an assault charge. I'm like, "That doesn't make any sense. Hitting me during sex, messing up my jaw?" And they said, "Well, this is what we're going to do." I begged for a polygraph but they wouldn't give me one.
I would think that, with this documentary becoming so high profile, that the perpetrators in the film have probably seen it. I would hope that they'd feel some kind of guilt or discomfort as they hear themselves being talked about.
I don't want him to feel guilt, I want him to feel fear. As much fear as I felt when he was doing those things to me.
Your perpetrator is still there, he hasn't left.
And he's gone up in rank, he's a First Class now. He was a Third Class when he assaulted and raped me, and he was bumped down in rank when he was given his punishment. He was given thirty days restriction, which means you're grounded for thirty days and he was bumped down in rank.
I read the letter that one of the captains sent you not too long ago [after you spoke to a battalion], and it was clear from what he said that the methods they currently have for teaching recruits about sexual assault need to change. If everyone is falling asleep during the presentation, something isn't working. I'm wondering what you think they should do to spread awareness. What do you think they should change to make people take this seriously?
Obviously the training that they're doing is not working. Why don't they take their command and go to the local battered women's shelter and hear some stories? You know, that would be one thing. It's local, they can go there, they're on duty, they're getting paid to do it. Actually seeing a face and hearing what happens to women when these things happen.
A lot of people come up to me afterwards, and I still get a bunch of letters everyday on Facebook from these soldiers that I just spoke to, telling me that I personally touched their lives. It was real for them because they actually got to see a face of what happens, not just training and then you go on. Sitting in a room and seeing the training that they have, it's not going to work. They need actual people, actual survivors to come in and hear them, hear how it destroys their lives. Otherwise they're just going to play on their phones or mess around or not take it seriously.
Is spreading awareness what you mainly dedicate yourself to these days?
Yeah, I don't really see myself as an advocate, but if I have a survivor come up to me who needs me to go to investigations, I'll go to investigations with them just so they have that support, because I didn't have that support and I know how it is to feel alone and scared. But yeah, I guess that is pretty much only what I'm doing now, is spreading awareness. It's the only thing I feel that I can do. I can put myself out there so that everyone can see. I call myself the train wreck, and everyone can see the damage and see how this ruins someone's life. That's really all I can offer. I don't really know how to help other people, because half the time I don't even know how to help myself. I lock myself in a dark bathroom and just try to let everything pass.
So I really just do what I'm told. If I'm told there's a screening and I can make it, yeah I'll go, and I'll talk to people, and I'll cry and shake. Always after a screening, there's at least one person who's in the military and has been sexually assaulted and I'll try to get them any kind of contacts or anything that they need.
This might be an obvious question, since being in the film appears to have had a healing effect on you, but can you tell me how your life has changed after being involved with this project?
It started right from the beginning. Like I said, people look at you and treat you differently when you're raped in the military. They look at you like you're shameful and like it was your fault, and when I was sitting there telling [the film's interviewers] about what happened to me, and when I was done, I was so afraid to look up at them. I was so afraid to see if they were looking at me like I was disgusting or shameful or disgraced, and I looked up and both of them were crying behind the camera.
That was the first time I'd ever had anyone actually cry with me, to feel that with me. I was actually so confused by it that I forgot my senses about what I was going to tell them, and I said to them, "Are you okay?" And they were like, "No, are YOU okay?" I said, "I don't know." They're just these amazing people.
I really thought I was the only one who'd been raped, because that's how the Coast Guard made me feel. They made me feel like I was the only one, that I was the problem. My commander said that if I'd protected my body better, he wouldn't have entered it. They kick you when you're down, and if you try to get up they'll kick you twice as hard, so you don't even think about getting back up.
So all that time, I still hadn't gotten back up. Then here came all this support, and they really lifted me back up. Like, "We are not letting you lie here anymore, you get back up now." And I did, and they were right there with me.
Despite everything that has happened to you, are you still proud of having served in the military and having been part of it?
Yeah, I love the Coast Guard. When people talk bad about the Coast Guard, I get angry. Our whole garage is decked out in Coast Guard signs and flags and logos. We got Coast Guard tattoos. I mean, that's the thing, we love the Coast Guard, we love their mission. When we enlisted, we wholeheartedly gave ourselves to the Coast Guard, and there's still a part of us that's still in the Coast Guard that we love, despite what happened to me.
I just wish the Coast Guard would change, that's it. Just get that perpetrator out of there so that he can't do it to anybody else, so people can keep their careers. That's all I wanted, a career in the Coast Guard. And still, if someone asked me if I wanted a chance to go back into the Coast Guard, I wouldn't because I'd be too scared. As much as I yearn for that job and to feel proud again—you can't imagine the day you graduate from boot camp and put on your uniform, to feel that proud—now it's hard to find what I'm proud of anymore. They build that pride up so much that when they destroy it and take it away, you feel like nothing.