Archive for the ‘Military and Veterans’ Category

Interview at Awst Press – Beautiful ideas cross borders

December 11, 2015

Liz Blood was in the process of leaving Austin, TX for Tulsa, OK but still caught up with me and edited our interview for Awst Press. If you check it out, I also highly recommend the essay by Donald Quist.

and for something lighter and happier, the latest cat photo.

Millie and plant

Her parents escaped North Korea; she grew up with her father’s PTSD

December 4, 2015
Korean Dance of Peace

Korean Dance of Peace

In addition to collecting survivor stories, I’m very interested in the 1.5 generation – that is, immigrants who were born overseas but came to the US at a young age. Maryann’s story is so illuminating about what is passed down through generations, what it’s like to grow up with secrets, traumatized parents, and cultural confusion. And to me, it’s such an important reminder of how much care and concern can mean to a child, even when we don’t understand.

Maryann is the latest eloquent storyteller at the Second Chances LA website. You can read her words here.

Ain’t We Got Fun: War, Video Games, and the Nonviolence Playbook

July 3, 2015

Thanks to Número Cinq for publishing the essay I wrote late in 2014, inspired by a visit to the Marine’s grad school for combat. Best seen in the magazine here, but I’ve also pasted it below. Now I’m thinking of the Emanuel AME Church. Thinking the killing has to stop. Still trying to figure out how.

One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”

The mockup of an Iraqi village for training

“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”

But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”

We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.

For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.

The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”

Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.

“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”

I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.

During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.

Warning sign at 29 Palms

* * * *
Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.

* * * *
A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?

I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.

I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?

Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.

Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?

* * * *
Rev. Lawson doesn’t often focus on what’s happening overseas. He’s said we must confront the culture of violence here, not over there. The road to peace is justice. Dismantling racism and poverty, stabilizing families by good employment, by health care in the United States–that’s what is critical for the security and wellbeing of the nation. “Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront militarization of our land.”

* * * *
“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.

I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.

Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”

Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.

* * * *
1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.

60# of gear.

But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.

* * * *
Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.

iraq all around us

Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”

The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.

We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.

We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.

Inside the Combat Convoy Simulator

My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.

Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.

* * * *
Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.

Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.

We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?

Equipment waiting for us at the MRAP
Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.

* * * *
90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.

A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.

How on earth do they do it?

First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.
What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?

For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.

But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.

What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.

* * * *
World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.

To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.

Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.

My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.

More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.

* * * *
Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.

Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”

This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.
While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.

Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?

Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.

We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”

The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.

Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?

* * * *
There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?

* * * *
Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?

How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?

Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.

We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently even the trailer is no longer available. It was designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.

The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.

Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?

* * * *
I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.

When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.

* * * *
If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.

Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.

* * * *
The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.

The game, The Snowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.

The Snowfield

The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.

The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.

Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?

Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?

The Call to Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.
That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.

I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.
3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?

* * * *
We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.

When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.

The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.
How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?

I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.

* * * *
In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.

I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none?

Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?

When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?

* * * *
At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.

At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raids

A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.

A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.

Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.

I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.

* * * *
So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?

* * * *
We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.
(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)

This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?

We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.

Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.

Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.

* * * *
CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives) here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.

* * * *
Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.

Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.

After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.

* * * *
You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?

Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?

We’re talking about millions of people.

Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?

Know Justice, Know Peace.

* * * *
According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.

Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?

* * * *
If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.

The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.

Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”

* * * *
“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.

* * * *
From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.

* * * *
Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

* * * *
Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now, mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.

* * * *
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?

* * * *
May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.
Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.

* * * *
At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.

The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.

I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.

Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.

* * * *
On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.

So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.

* * * *
At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.

* * * *
I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.

But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?

I Can't Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner

* * * *
Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.

How many more

The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger turn it into effective action.”

I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.

We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.

Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

Millions March LA 042

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

* * * *
When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.

James Lawson: A Sense of Urgency

October 3, 2014

Back in 2008, I interviewed Rev. James Lawson, Jr., veteran (still active) activist for civil rights and social justice, for many hours over the course of several days. The full interview has been too long to publish anywhere, but an abridged version appeared in The Believer in March/April 2013 and I included a link to the piece in this blog. Now I’ve just seen the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published another version, duplicating some of The Believer interview and included material that wasn’t published before. Here’s the new link.

Serving the Women Who Served

March 25, 2014

The other day I wrote about the Coordinated Entry System serving people coming out of jail who could be homeless. The same system now also serves veterans as I learned at the Women Veterans Summit. Here’s my account of that event as it appears today in LA Progressive.

Yolanda Shelton came out of the Army after 8 years service and found herself in Los Angeles down to her last $7 with no place to go. Shelters and facilities that house women won’t accept a male child over the age of 12 so she and her son spent months in the street.

Mika Montoya joined the National Guard at 17 thinking she would defend the nation. Six months later she found herself in Iraq. On her return she had another surprise: her child is a daughter, but she found programs for vets rarely if ever accommodate mothers.

Both women told their stories at the Women Veterans Summit held on March 19 on the campus of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
Callie Wight, the Women Veterans Program Manager Greater Los Angeles, agreed. She has a long list of providers of residential treatment centers but can’t name a single one that takes women with their children. How many beds are there in permanent supportive housing for women with kids? None.

A year ago when Julie De La Mora of the CA Employment Development Department brought servicewomen together, Wight told of vast improvements in women’s access to necessary health services. The day was a celebration of military women’s accomplishments. This year, Wight and De La Mora were hosts of the event but so was Tracy Satterfield Tordella of the Homeless Women Veteran’s Collaborative. Along with recognition and celebration, they joined forces to put the focus on the most vulnerable military sisters.

All day, panelists representing agencies and service providers discussed housing, law, health, employment and education, their best practices, gaps in service, and future plans. If your priority is not the full report but rather in knowing what you can do now to address homelessness among women veterans, please feel free to skip to the end of the article for an Action Alert.

Women Attend Marine Boot Camp At Parris Island, South Carolina

Military Sexual Trauma as a Barrier to Being Served

A high percentage of homeless women vets suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or are survivors of domestic violence, said Cacilia Kim, an attorney with the California Women’s Law Center. Because male veterans so outnumber females, a woman may find herself alone and isolated in the settings intended to help her. If a woman doesn’t feel safe in transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, Kim said, “she won’t see it as a viable option.”

Similarly, Dr. Jeanette Lantz, VA psychologist, noted that a woman with MST severe enough to require treatment on an inpatient psychiatric ward may find herself housed on a floor with men. Anne Hudson-Price of Public Counsel is concerned when MST survivors in Family Court seeking to regain or keep custody are stuck in a waiting room for hours with men charged with domestic violence. When women are placed in trigger situations like these, they are unlikely to access possible services.

But specifically, when it comes to housing, government programs as well as private landlords fear violating the Fair Housing Act if they provide gender-segregated facilities. Kim, however, interprets the law to ask whether women have equal access to housing under conditions which feel unsafe or can retraumatize.

In the meantime, providers can be urged to assign women quarters near the security office, or on separate floors of a shared building. Kim would like to see separate facilities for women vets, but for an exception to be made, you need a “damn good reason,” and anecdotal accounts won’t cut it. Right now, data isn’t being collected, and Kim says empirical evidence is needed to make an effective argument.

“If there’s a survey, even if it takes 45 minutes or an hour, fill it out,” requested Stephanie Stone of the LA County Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Register with the VA even if you have other insurance,” Wight said. Funding for programs depends on enrollment. “Even if you won’t use all the services, enroll so that your sisters can.”

One service on the West LA VA campus is Naomi House, said Natalie Wells of VA housing programs. The Salvation Army operates this all-woman bungalow but as Congress has cut funding, its future is uncertain. Sharon McLendon of the New Directions Women’s Program told of their two houses in Mar Vista, home to 14 women who receive wraparound services:
clinical support, tutors to prepare for a return to school, employment preparation including vocational certificate programs, assistance with family visitation and reunification and
moving expenses.

Los Angeles does have programs that work but not enough of them. More units will open in the next year or two but need will still far exceed supply.

Discriminatory Effect of Existing Law

“My personal point of view?” said Wight. “Women need their own membership-based veterans organization with clout to lobby Congress.”
Federal law regulating HUD funds, including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers use definitions of eligibility that tend to work against the needs of women, and so laws and regulations need to be challenged, amended, or reinterpreted. (see the Action Alert)

One example of creative interpretation was obvious upon entering the conference room. The VA is legally banned from providing “child care” but some women vets could not have attended at all unless they could bring their young children. An area in the back of the room was set aside for “children’s activities” where volunteers kept the kids occupied. The mothers had seating in the back of the room too as they were required to keep their kids in their line of sight.

In many cases, change can only come through the state legislature or Congress and sometimes that’s what happens. For example, Congress has now authorized the VA to cover the first seven days of a baby’s life instead of having to stop care upon the baby’s delivery.

Existing law too often fails to take into account the special needs of mothers, but it ignores the needs of women who want to have children. An audience member told of undergoing 14 surgeries due to what she suffered in Iraq. Her injuries and surgeries left her infertile. Today, she’s happily pregnant, but she and her husband had to come up with $12,000 on their own to cover in vitro fertilization because the VA is not allowed by law to treat infertility–even when the condition is recognized as service-connected.

One-Stop Shopping

Vets are a priority population for the new Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing initiative through which an LA County applicant registers only once to search all appropriate housing available through multiple programs and nonprofit providers. Where to register depends on neighborhood. Veterans can learn where to go by contacting outreach manager Michelle O’Neil at 310.478.3711 ext. 40261 or Michelle.O’ (Outside of LA County, try 877-4AID-VET or

One-stop shopping is now the goal to correct years of vets getting the runaround or being sent from one office to another. There will still be multiple locations for services, but getting help will be more coordinated and streamlined.

Stone reported that the county-owned building, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall at 1816 South Figueroa Street, will soon offer “all things veteran,” – nonmedical, that is – from help with the VA claims process to a place to meet with a wide range of agencies and nonprofits. (As for existing long-delayed VA claims, Linda Benoit, California Department of Veterans Affairs said California has now established three regional offices–one in Los Angeles–to expedite paperwork and get through the backlog.)

By the time everyone has moved into Patriotic Hall–probably in May–a list of providers and a calendar will be available. Not every provider will be on-site every day, however, so once the program is fully operational, vets should check the calendar schedule before making the trip.

Having a central location for services makes a huge difference. When it comes to supportive housing, Dr. Lantz pointed out how much it matters to have services co-located with the residential area. Women who are stressed enough to need support, she said, can’t always be expected to follow up when told “go over there.” At the very least, a case manager or trusted service provider should arrange a “warm handoff” to a second provider.

According to Dr. Fatma Batuman, Medical Director of the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Women’s Health for the VA, women can now have all their appointments (except for some specialties) scheduled at the same place for the same day so they no longer have to travel repeatedly back and forth to get care.

Gaps remain, including the relative paucity of resources in rural and outlying areas such as Kern County. Veronica Lira of FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) resiliency training for service families said the program tries to bridge that gap the best it can be offering sessions via Skype and through other computer technology.

Caring for transgender clients remains new and sometimes confusing both to clinical staff and other vets like the woman in the audience who expressed her discomfort at having a male-to-female transgender vet participate in an MST support group. Policies to ensure sensitivity and the rights of all are still a work-in-progress. Dr. Susan Steinberg of the VA Ambulatory Care Center on Temple Street reported on the individual, couples, and group counseling afforded LGBT veterans as well as referrals for endocrinology, hormone treatment and speech therapy for transgender vets.


Veterans and the Courts

“Your best outcome is to be represented by a licensed, experienced attorney, which is what our court system was designed for,” said Margaret Little of the LA County Superior Court. In reality, access to legal representation is woefully inadequate not just for veterans but for all Americans of limited economic means. According to Little, in the court that handles probate and family issues, 80-90% of people have to represent themselves.

Many of women vets’ legal problems can be traced back to MST. While the diagnosis is widely recognized now, for years women suffering from PTSD related to sexual violence rather than combat received medical or administrative discharges that disqualified them from receiving VA services and other benefits. (Many men fell into this trap as well, having their PTSD falsely attributed to a preexisting “personality disorder.”) This is one of the reasons about 15% of the homeless vets on Los Angeles street are ineligible for VA benefits according to Dr. Carl McKnight of the LA County Department of Mental Health. The county and many nonprofits try to pick up the slack and do provide free services to any and all veterans, no matter the length of service or type of discharge. Lawyers including Kim have been able to represent some women in getting their discharges upgraded.

When MST or PTSD causes homelessness or substance abuse or other behavioral issues, it too often leads as well to loss of child custody. Vets go to Family Court to retain custody of their kids or to arrange visitation or get their children back. Stone cites the Valor Guide, which lists organizations that provide free legal assistance to veterans. When it comes down to it, however, a woman in need may end up making dozens of phone calls only to find out not one organization has sufficient staff and resources to help her. Despite the crucial nature of custody proceedings, women vets often have no choice but to represent themselves.

Recognizing that it’s not enough but better than nothing, Little hired Kathleen Dixon to set up self-help services and family law facilitator offices in county courthouses. As court employees, facilitators have to remain neutral and advise both parties if asked. They can’t accompany a person into court, but they can provide explanations and guidance in navigating the process. Some of the organizations in the Valor Guide may provide higher levels of guidance when they lack funding to offer full representation. Family law facilitators are a presence in selected courthouses and will offer legal guidance at Patriotic Hall the fourth Friday of each month in the afternoon.

Hudson-Price wants all veterans to be aware of special protections they receive in criminal court–but only if the judge is made aware of the defendant’s military status. For example, under CA Penal Code 1170.9, veterans are eligible for probation or alternative sentencing if they can show their criminal act stemmed from a trauma-related condition such as PTSD. They can claim this benefit in any criminal proceeding, even if they aren’t docketed in the special veterans treatment court. If the court assigns treatment instead of jail or prison, veterans can get the charges entirely dismissed upon successful completion of that treatment. In addition, veterans picked up in the street should identify themselves as such to police or deputies who may in some cases be able to take the vet to the VA instead of to jail.

Hudson-Price drew attention to another legal problem homeless people face. When people are ticketed for minor quality-of-life offenses, due to their complicated lives they are likely to miss or not even know about a scheduled court date. This turns a small ticket into a $10,000 penalty and an arrest warrant. At HALO Citation Clinics, people can find out if they have warrants and can quickly clear any outstanding tickets. Clinics are held periodically at New Directions on the VA campus and at different nonprofits. Vets can find out more at Patriotic Hall.
“Whenever you go to court,” Dixon said, “identify yourself as a veteran” because new laws have increased a number of legal protections. There is now a statewide court form, the MIL-100, which officially notifies the court of military service. Anyone can file it–the veteran, a family member or friend or anyone else acting on her behalf.

All lawyers are required to donate at least 20 hours of pro bono (free) time, said Hudson-Price. She thinks we need to tell more personal stories about women vets, for example, how they desperately need help to be reunited with their children, in order to win the attention–and pro bono hours–of private attorneys.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

When it came time for the Employment and Education panel, Yolanda Shelton who had already told of her anger and frustration when being given the runaround was now able to express her gratitude. “I just want to hug her neck every time I see her,” she said, referring to panelist Maxine Anderson of the CA Employment Development Department.

“I have a passion for my job,” said Anderson who added that in her office, all staff have been trained so they can step in and help even if a veterans service navigator isn’t available. “We work on the whole person,” she said. If a vet isn’t ready for employment, her office doesn’t turn her away but figures out what services she needs and makes the referral. When someone is ready to work, Anderson doesn’t want to see vets stuck in $8/hour security and warehouse jobs. “We come out of the service with more skills than that.” She urges veterans to register with CalJobs where new listings are held up for 48 hours so that vets can see them a day before anyone else.

The Hero 2 Hired website lists openings from 30,000 military-friendly employers. (Don’t confuse it with any of the Hero 4 Hire sites that provide actors dressed as superheroes for parties.) This service initially served only National Guard and reservists but, regardless of what the website may still say, any vet can now register, add her MOS, and then see what jobs are available that match her skill set, said Ilka Davidson. “We don’t do rent-a-cop,” she added. “A vet who’s been a machinist should get $31/hour.” Applications are filed online. “Tech,” said Davidson. “You need to embrace it and utilize it no matter how much you hate it.” And an advantage to filing online instead of in person: they don’t know your age or what you look like.

But when everything is online, Lisa McGlory admits it can be hard to get in-person meetings with HR managers which is what she does as part of the 1,000 vets initiative of the small nonprofit America ICARE. She works with potential employers who express willingness to hire veterans but also say they aren’t sure where to find them or even how to act around them. She’s been asked, “Do I address a Marine differently than Army?” So she offers workshops to be sure employers are ready for vets as well as workshops in resume writing, interviewing, and other job preparation to be sure veterans are ready for employment from Day One.

College for Family Members

The children, spouse or domestic partner of a veteran may be eligible for a full tuition fee waiver at any California state college, according to Benoit, but will still pay for books and fees. There are four different categories of help with different eligibility requirements which can be checked here.

For all the serious content, this year’s summit ended on a celebratory note: letters of commendation from the governor, a gala dinner with music, dancing, and a fashion show. Women vets got to strut their stuff in professional outfits and accessories provided through the Working Wardrobe program that dresses vets for success when they go to job interviews and start new employment.

What Can You Do?

See the letter, below, prepared by Laura Lake of the Coalition for Veterans Land. Her Action Alert is California-specific but includes information that can be adapted to other states and for advocacy at the federal level.

Take the advice of Maricela Guzman who shared her personal experience. Guzman was raped during her Navy service and still copes, years later, with PTSD. She was always known for being highly responsible and driven to achieve but following her discharge, she spent years unable to function, not working, not going to school. She lost a marriage. She made a suicide attempt. Today, Guzman remains affected by the trauma and still receives treatment although she is in graduate school, and employed, and is well known as a speaker and advocate on the subject of MST. One interview didn’t go so well. Guzman walked out of the room and soon broke down in tears after being told, “You look normal. Are you sure you have PTSD?”

When you talk to survivors, she says, remember that “we are the experts. We are the voices.” People shouldn’t speak assuming they know best and without being self-critical. So here’s what everyone can do: “Listen,” Guzman says, “and stand in solidarity.”

ACTION ALERT! California AB 639

Eliminate Barriers to Permanent Supportive Housing For Veteran Families and Female Veterans with MST

Please send this by April 1, 2014 on your organization’s letterhead (or slightly revised to come from an individual).

TO: CalVet Undersecretary Lindsey Sin (

FROM: [name of organization]

RE: Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Bond Act of 2014

As members of the veterans’ advocacy community, we wish to commend Undersecretary Sin for working with the Legislature to address the housing needs of veterans. In anticipation of the passage of this historic bond act, we seek to eliminate barriers to safe supportive housing for veteran families and for female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (in Los Angeles, more than half the homeless female veterans have experienced sexual trauma) through the regulations that will implement AB 639.

Most veteran housing has so far catered to the needs of single male veterans, not veteran families or the growing number of female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. California can once again lead the way by addressing this special need population by:

Including in the NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) veteran families at risk of homelessness or homeless rather than mandating chronic homelessness as defined by HUD. Currently, to qualify for VASH Vouchers (tenant or project-based) or Section 8 operating subsidies, a veteran must have a year of homelessness. Requiring chronic homelessness to qualify veteran families exposes children to a year of homelessness, a trauma that can scar a child and place him/her in foster care. We therefore ask that new guidelines be adopted that eliminate the chronic homeless requirement and add at-risk of homelessness, couch-surfing and homelessness to qualify for bond funds and VASH vouchers. As Housing First has demonstrated, getting these families into safe, supportive housing saves them added trauma and taxpayers additional costs.

Fair Housing: Currently over 50 percent of homeless women veterans are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. Their recovery from PTSD requires that they and their children live in safe, secure female veteran housing (similar to domestic violence shelters). Since no clear legal precedent exists permitting female-only housing for victims of military sexual trauma for permanent supportive housing, it is necessary that regulations implementing veteran housing funds authorize female-only permanent supportive housing as disability-based and in compliance with fair housing laws.

Designate female veterans with children and MST victims, as a special need community. Currently there is no permanent supportive housing for female veterans with children in Los Angeles County. Housing developers need certainty that serving this population will be on a level playing field with traditional veteran housing. These developers need eligibility for state bond funds and/or VASH vouchers due to the high price of land in California and construction costs.

The Invisible War: Combating Military Sexual Trauma

October 15, 2012

My article published Oct. 14th in Hollywood Progressive

After The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the US military, screened Thursday evening, a woman stood up from the audience to say she had just celebrated her 80th birthday and that, as a young woman, she’d been raped by a stranger. She wanted everyone to know that today she’s a happy person. Yes, she said to loud applause, “it is possible to heal.”

Healing, being able to move forward with their own lives, is surely what everyone wishes for survivors of sexual violence. But as documentary producer Amy Ziering suggested to the audience during the post-film discussion, in the military, it’s a lot harder to recover if you are far from home, have no support, are called a liar and threatened with retaliation or even death if you tell, and surely worst of all, have to report to your job the next day to the very person who raped you.

Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick

Kori Cioca was stalked and harassed by her commanding officer in the Coast Guard for weeks before he attacked her. He’d call her at 3:00 AM. She’d come in from training and find him waiting in her bed. Then, in 2005, he smashed her jaw during the violent rape. By the time The Invisible War screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year and won the Audience Award, Cioca was still in pain, still unable to eat anything but soft food, and had still not been able to get the VA to approve the jaw surgery she needed. An audience member stepped forward and footed the bill for her at last.

Hers is only one of many stories. The Department of Defense itself estimates that in 2011 there were 19,000 violent sex crimes in which a military service member was assaulted by other military personnel.

The Invisible War brings us close into the lives of survivors, letting us see not only the long lasting damage of Military Sexual Assault (MST) but the toll on families struggling through recovery along with them as they deal with suicide attempts, physical and psychological consequences.

Kori Cioca and her husband

Over the years, I have known several women vets from around the country who were raped while serving. What I didn’t know till I watched The Invisible War was how widespread the crime has become and how the system of military justice in its very structure fails to address it. I learned a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. And that almost half of the survivors of military rape are men.

Men tend to be even less willing than women to speak openly about what they endured. But Ziering and director Kirby Dick were able to include brief interviews with several male survivors, including Amando Javier for whom the seven Marines who gang raped him still “live in my head.” Michael Matthews kept silent for 30 years after he was knocked to the ground en route to the mess hall and then raped by two fellow soldiers. He struggled alone with the demons born of his trauma, fearing his wife would leave him if she knew. When he told his story at last to her and the filmmakers, his wife put her arms around him and, he says now, “this great weight had been lifted off me.”

These male-on-male assaults are not about sexual orientation. The perpetrators aren’t gay. The men aren’t targeted as gay. It’s about dominance, about predators going after targets they believe they can prey upon.

The majority of men in the military are not predators. But a recent US Navy survey which assured anonymity found that 15% of incoming recruits reported committing rape or attempted rape in civilian life–a frightening statistic especially if Russell Strand, Chief of the US Army Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, is right when he states that the average sex offender is a repeat offender with about 300 victims.

And the military is “a target-rich environment for a predator,” according to Brigadier General (Ret.) Loree Sutton, M.D., who served as the highest ranking psychiatrist in the US Army. New recruits must obey the orders of commanding officers, the only people to whom an assault can be reported are often themselves perpetrators or close friends of the perpetrators. How do you think Jessica Hinves felt when she reported she’d been raped and her accused assailant was named Airman of the Year while the investigation was ongoing? Taliban-worthy logic often prevails as women including Andrea Werner and Elle Helman were charged with adultery when they reported being raped.

Another woman had doubts about the effectiveness of military justice when she served as a Special Agent in the Army Criminal Investigation Command. In investigating a rape complaint, instead of treating the men as suspects, she was ordered to interrogate the women, seeking to prove they were making false statements. Then she herself was raped by a serial rapist. When she reported it, she was administratively discharged without benefits after 9-1/2 years of service.

In their interviews on-screen, the survivors talk about their love for the military, their pride in serving, but when asked if they would want a daughter to serve, the answer was No.
Several years ago, I met a bright, self-possessed, and self-confident high school senior who intended to join up after graduation. Admittedly, I didn’t want to see any young person enlist and go to war, but this was a young woman and I knew the additional risk. I gave her scholarship and loan information and warned her about sexual assault. She remained determined to pursue a military career but I was relieved she decided to go to college first and enter the military service with officer rank. I hoped this would, at least, make her less vulnerable.

But at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington–which handles security for the White House–both Ariana Klay–back from service in Iraq, and Elle Helmer had the rank of lieutenant and this did not protect them from being harassed and later raped by superior officers. The culture of the unit was one of partying, drinking, and misogyny. The women were called “walking mattresses” and “sluts.” According to Klay, a senior officer in her command, the very first time he spoke to her, said, “Female Marines here are nothing but objects for Marines to fuck.”

Lt. Ariana Klay

The attitude of the post commander can make all the difference. As Ziering pointed out, most of the women in the film had entirely positive experiences for most of their military careers. “Everything I wanted to be,” said Cioca, “they taught you that.” “Everything about the military inspired me,” said Klay who cited the challenges of being smart and fit, and her love of the professionalism and camaraderie. Indeed, the powerful sense of camaraderie, once it’s turned against you, makes the women feel all the more betrayed. Cioca enjoyed the discipline of military life, till she encountered an undisciplined superior.

Trina McDonald breezed through basic training in the Navy but was then sent to an isolated post in Alaska where she was immediately made to feel “like a piece of meat on a slab.” She was raped soon after. After separation from the Navy, McDonald went through a period of homelessness and addiction before finding a stable life with marriage and children. But she is not free of the effects of the trauma. Says her wife, “The biggest hurdle was not taking PTSD personally.”

Trina McDonald (right) and wife

McDonald’s account made me think of a friend who loved the military life but received transfer orders to a post with a reputation for violent misogyny. “I knew I couldn’t go there,” she said and so she outed herself during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in order to be discharged from the Army.

After Thursday’s screening, an audience member told Ziering, “I hope you made money on this so more work like this can be made.” Money? No. But Ziering and Dick are now so committed to serving those who served their country that Ziering paid her own way to LA to speak and waived the payment of an honorarium. The filmmakers have created a second website, Invisible No More, which offers lists of resources for veterans, a petition to the Pentagon to advocate for new policies, discussion guides and information about hosting a screening. Ziering and Dick are now setting up a fund to assist vets whose PTSD/MST and physical needs aren’t being adequately addressed.

Since the Sundance screening, the invisible war has become much more visible. The major networks have–coincidentally?–aired brief segments about the issue, even when the documentary isn’t mentioned. Ziering first learned about MST through the work of Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict. Now Benedict’s Salon article from 2007 and her books are getting deserved attention. Veterans interviewed in the film are now subjects of feature articles in print around the country. The scandals that have occasionally made the news over the last decades are no longer seen as isolated incidents. The Invisible War has received almost entirely laudatory coverage in the media–except for some voices in the blogosphere. Because of my great respect for the filmmakers, I want to address some of the negative responses, including the charge of “demagoguery,” that can be found on-line.

• The confessed and alleged perpetrators weren’t given screen time to respond. True. But would they want to appear? The documentary shielded their identities. Each one of us can judge whether this was the right call or not.

• The film shows women vets going to court and having their case dismissed because rape is considered an occupational hazard in the military. This claim gets called “demagoguery” because the court decision in question never cites anything like “occupational hazard.” So I looked this up and find the filmmakers did simplify the legal situation. I don’t fault them for this. If you care to read more than could easily fit into the documentary, keep reading this paragraph and see what you think. Otherwise, please skip ahead. A case that went up to the Supreme Court in 1950, Feres v. the United States, established a doctrine that persons in military service are barred from suing the government for any injury that occurs “incident to military service” — i.e., in laymen’s terms, an occupational hazard. The Feres doctrine has so far precluded women (and men) from bringing suit over rapes and assaults in which the Department of Justice or branches of service were negligent or complicit. Attorney Susan Burke has been trying to make a strategic end run around Feres by asserting Constitutional arguments, filing cases and appeals in different jurisdictions. As for the US District Court case we see being filed in The Invisible War, yes, the judge’s eventual decision to dismiss came down on other grounds and didn’t mention occupational hazards. But when the women’s case was not allowed to proceed, this left the Feres language about “incident to military service” still standing as an obstacle in the way of access to the civilian justice system.

• The claim is that contrary to the what the film says, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not announce a policy change two days after seeing the film because accusations of rape were always handled up the chain of command and not resolved at the unit level. In fact, Panetta made it mandatory that unit commanders refer all complaints up the chain of command. As the documentary shows, in the problem units, commanders used their own discretion to close down investigations or bury complaints instead of moving them up.

Unlike some bloggers, the Pentagon is taking the film seriously. Ziering and Dick have been invited to offer a two-day training session at a major base. Their program is surely more likely to have an impact than past anti-rape initiatives undertaken by the military, including the informational poster: Don’t risk it! Ask her when she’s sober! which merely perpetuates the myth that women cry rape the morning after consensual sex. A better approach would be to tell soldiers they have a duty to intervene when they hear a woman like Navy recruit Hannah Sewell screaming for help. No one within earshot responded to her calls for help during the violent attack that took her virginity, injured her back, and left her bruised and bleeding. Oh, by the way, her rape kit and the photos of her injuries were “lost.” Her father, Sgt. Major Jerry Sewell was serving in Afghanistan during part of the time The Invisible War was being filmed but, back in the States, he decided to appear on-camera. He resigned his commission and gave up his military career in order to speak freely, at times in tears, about what happened to his daughter.

The Sewells, father and daughter

MST and the military’s failure to stop it is all very visible now. And with this visibility, Ziering is hopeful. As she told the audience, “When the military takes on an issue, they really can effect change more effectively than in civilian life. The military led the way in racial equality. If the military can take this on and model non-misogynistic behavior, maybe it will make a difference” not just for people in uniform but eventually in civilian life as well.

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Thursday’s screening and Q&A was hold at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax, LA 90036. Due to public interest, a second screening is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7th from noon till 2:30. School groups are welcome, but as seating is limited, please inquire and reserve your places by contacting Ruth Williams, Director of Advocacy at 323-852-8503 or As of this writing, it’s not known whether Amy Ziering will be able to attend.

To learn about hosting your own screening, please go to:

Hollywood Progressive, October 15, 2012