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Combating Sexual Assault in the Military; "The Invisible War"

Aired September 5, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to a special edition of our program, where we take a look at some of the stories and conversations that we've had this year and that we thought were worth sharing with you again, including bringing you new developments.

Now tonight, we want to talk about the rampant sexual abuse controversy that is the United States military, the crisis of sexual assault by commanders against men and women under their command. It is the war that no member of the U.S. military should ever have to fight. And there is an ongoing battle and a struggle for victims to get justice within the military chain of command.

But is that really possible? About 3,000 acts of sexual violence were reported in 2012. But the Pentagon estimates that in reality there were more than 26,000 incidents. President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are weighing in, vowing to enforce a no tolerance policy.

But only one-fifth of sexual assault cases in the military actually make it to trial. And reporting an assault means dealing within the chain of command so the military superiors of assault victims have direct influence over the fate of their cases.

Now New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has proposed legislation to overhaul the way the military handles these sexual assault cases.


SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: It's a common sense change that I think brings justice and transparency to our system and our military and will make our military that much stronger. We have the greatest military in the world. We have men and women who are willing to sacrifice everything. We should not be asking them to sacrifice being subject to these crimes at the hands of their colleagues.


AMANPOUR: Now before Senator Gillibrand and other members of Congress intervened, I met one brave woman who's taking a stand to fight for justice in the military. She's Sergeant Jennifer Smith. She's an active duty member of the United States Air Force. She's filed a formal complaint charging sexual assault and harassment that she says went on for years.

Since returning from the front lines in Iraq, she's been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And all of this comes after a 17-year career during which she received numerous service awards. Her family has served in the military for generations.


AMANPOUR: Sgt. Smith, welcome. Thanks for joining me.

SGT. JENNIFER SMITH, U.S. AIR FORCE: Thank you so much.

AMANPOUR: This is a horrendous situation and I'm sure it must really difficult to talk about.

But can you tell me what happened to you?

What kind of assault did you suffer?

SMITH: Well, throughout my career, I've had a number of things that have happened. But the most traumatic thing that has happened to me was when I was in Iraq, in Balad. I was assaulted by an Army personnel. And he basically just grabbed me and threw me up against the wall.

But that changed -- that was like the pinnacle that changed how I thought about some of the things that I had seen in the military prior. I kind of didn't tell anyone. I just came back, went to work the next day like nothing happened and buried it.

AMANPOUR: What made you speak out? What was the straw that broke the camel's back?

SMITH: I think when I came back from Iraq, I was different. That time was very different, because it was so aggressive and it was so hostile. When I was -- one time we had -- some of our unit was deployed.

So I had to do some reports for them and actually went out on a server. And I found some books out there that were, you know, obviously pornographic. And our servers are accessed by over 400 personnel within our unit. So --

AMANPOUR: And I have here some of the evidence that you cite in your complaints over this. This is called the Combat Songbook. And to be very honest, it is -- I'm just showing the tame front cover that we've decided to make for the front cover. But it's got, you know, F--- Songs, Trash Tunes, the lyrics are unprintable and certainly unspeakable on this program.

And you're telling me that you found those on a government computer?

SMITH: Yes, ma'am. I found them under a drive that I needed to access information to build reports from. So from there, I had talked to someone I was stationed with, a captain. We had gone to Iraq together and I trusted him. And I told him that I was actually assaulted. That was the first active duty person that I told that I was assaulted.

And I asked him to tell the other pilots that I was assaulted; the reason I didn't come forward was because of stuff like this. I just didn't think it would be taken care of or taken seriously.

AMANPOUR: You know, when I was covering the first Gulf War, I was on an aircraft carrier and I was reporting on the pilots. And my colleagues had reported that before and after their sorties, they were indulging in reading pornography and other such things. And I had no idea that it was such a prevalent thing that exists to this day.

SMITH: Yes, it still is. I mean, before we would set (ph) pilots in Iraq, they would play some graphic things.

AMANPOUR: Now some might say, well, men will be men. But you're saying that this created a culture in all the units.

SMITH: Yes, ma'am. I think, while I can only speak to the fighter units that I've been attached to, a lot of even the female fighter pilots will partake in it and pretend it doesn't bother them when, in fact, you know, if you had said to me that it does and they just kind of have to go along, because you figure their training is so extensive that when you get to the point where you're actually at your jet, you know, you -- they don't want to come forward because they've already put all this time and effort into it. So they're not going to complain about something like that.

AMANPOUR: You're a 17-year veteran.

SMITH: Yes, ma'am.

AMANPOUR: And you've decided to come forward with just a few years before you could have retired with full pay and benefits.

SMITH: Yes, ma'am.

AMANPOUR: Why? And are you worried that this will jeopardize that?

SMITH: I think that, hopefully, this will help further greater good. The reason that I came forward was because I -- my husband took me to a movie. He took me to see "The Invisible War." And my husband has been helping me through my PTSD for about two years now.

He actually was one of the people who intervened and said, you really need to get some help, because it was really affecting our marriage.

AMANPOUR: Well, in "Invisible War," which we featured, we hear the most appalling tales; women in all branches of the military are interviewed. Some talk about being repeatedly drugged and raped. Some talk about waking up in the middle of the night and finding fellow servicemen on top of them.

Some talk about their rooms being literally broken down, the doors to their rooms, to get in.

Did you see that kind of stuff?

SMITH: I saw some of that stuff. Some of that stuff happened to me. I've had people fall asleep on my doorstep, and I open the door and the guy falls in and I have to go find someone to take him away and --

AMANPOUR: You heard Chuck Hagel, President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, in his confirmation hearings. Among other things, he said, I will follow what Leon Panetta has done in trying to make this go away, this terrible crime of rape in the military. Do you believe that that can be done?

SMITH: I'm not sure. I do hope that it can be eradicated, of course. But we've had zero tolerance and we've had different trainings and different types of talks about this type of thing since I have been in, for 17 years. So the problem is cultural. He's going to have to change the culture of at least the Air Force. That's really all I can speak to. But, yes.

AMANPOUR: The reaction from the military, from the Air Force, to whom we reached out for a response to your case, is that, "Sexual assault is a crime and it violates our core values. Every allegation will be thoroughly investigated and commanders will consider the full range of disciplinary and administrative measures."

Is that true?

SMITH: I don't believe -- well, in my case, it's not true. I first reported this -- these incidents -- I started in 2008. That's when I actually reported the first one. And there was nothing done other than I was moved to a different section.

AMANPOUR: Here's another incredible statistic that just blows my head off: 33 percent of women in the military who've been assaulted don't report it since their superior was a friend of the rapist. Twenty-five percent don't report it because their superior, the person to whom they should report, is the rapist.

SMITH: I understand that. I actually used my chain of command. I did everything proper in reporting the most recent things as far as the items that I had found. I started at the lowest level of my chain and went all the way to the top. And they have been aware of it since the summer of 2012 and still have not taken any action.

AMANPOUR: Now in response to your claims and your -- and your -- and your complaint, the Secretary of the Air Force reached out to you. You spoke on the phone.

SMITH: Yes. He called me -- it was a personal telephone call, I guess, or --

AMANPOUR: Can you talk about it?

SMITH: He just said that he was going to do the best that he could and he understood --


AMANPOUR: Did you tell him the whole litany of what had happened when you talked with him?

SMITH: I was so caught off guard by the fact that he called me -- and considering who he is -- and I know my place -- I was -- I said, "Yes, sir. Well, thank you for calling me."

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you. You say you know your place. Is this the problem with women in the military? Even now women have been, just in the last week, granted, you know, full combat roles now.


AMANPOUR: But you're saying, "Yes, sir," and I feel that maybe there was a lot of that going on with women who were assaulted.

Did you feel the pressure of being a second-class citizen in the military?

SMITH: I don't think -- one of the things that we do pride ourselves in is respect, you know. And he is a senior ranking officer. Anyone appointed above me, I'm going to show them that respect. I'm not going to necessarily question, you know, what they say every single time. And for him to call me out of the blue like that, I -- that was -- it was shocking.

AMANPOUR: But you feel that there is at least a channel and at least they know your case?

SMITH: They know the case. But as far as I'm concerned, nothing's been done.

AMANPOUR: So as I say, women are now getting more and more advances and opportunities in the military. They've now been told that they can go into full combat roles, although as we know, in places with no formal front lines, like Iraq and Afghanistan, you've been in combat.

SMITH: Right. There's no longer trench warfare.

AMANPOUR: Exactly.

SMITH: Right.

AMANPOUR: What would you say, though, to a young woman, to a daughter of your own, who might want to choose the military, any of the services, as their life choice, their career?

SMITH: I think for that question, I look back to my father. My father was in Vietnam. He was in the Army. And I remember coming home when I was a junior in high school and saying, "Dad, I think I want to join the Army or the Marine Corps."

And he said, "No, honey, we're going to take you down to the Air Force recruiter, because you'll be safe there."

And when this happened and all this came out -- and he was one of the -- he also recognized my PTSD, that -- he's crushed by this, because he thought for sure that they would take care of his daughter, after what he had sacrificed.

AMANPOUR: Well, you're going to keep up the fight.

SMITH: Absolutely.


AMANPOUR: And after a break, we'll hear about the personal battle scars that Sgt. Smith still carries from waging two wars, one against the enemy in Iraq, and the other, fighting sexual abuse and betrayal within her own ranks.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

About one in three military women has been sexually assaulted. That is double the number of women who are assaulted in civilian life.

The Oscar nominated documentary "Invisible War" follows members of the military who've been victims of sexual crimes. And it shows the toll that it's taken on their lives, their careers and their families.

Sgt. Jennifer Smith has a similar story. She's an active duty member of the U.S. Air Force, who says she suffered several assaults during her career. Her family has served in the military for generations. And I continue my conversation with her asking how they, how her family react to her experiences.


AMANPOUR: You came from a military family. Your grandparents and your parents served. Tell me about that and how you grew up and in what kind of atmosphere and did that make you want to join the military?

SMITH: I just remember hearing my grandfather talk about being a cook on a ship and when the attacks would come in, sometimes they would have to run up top and shoot the guns and, you know, he had the --


SMITH: -- exactly. He had the little tattoos and everything. He was just a great guy. And my grandmother supported him. And they were very proud of their -- of being involved in World War II, that generation was a wonderful generation. And from that we just have a very patriotic family. So --

AMANPOUR: And that influenced you, obviously, to go into the Air Force, to go into the military.

Now with all of your experience, particularly in this issue of sexual assault, did you talk to your dad about it?

Did you ask whether that was going on in his time?

SMITH: When he was in the military, he was actually in the infantry in the Army. So he was pretty isolated. The only women that they had around were nurses. But for me, to see my father have to -- I know that my father went through a lot of hard times when he was in Vietnam.

But I don't think in any way that he ever had to abuse pornography to get that high, to be able to do his job. And that's one of the disturbing things that I thought of.

Because for me, like a fighter pilot, they fly in the air. They're -- they can see their targets on the ground. But all they do is push a button. For someone like my dad, they're actually looking the person in the eye when they're killing them. And to say that you need that or you need that adrenaline high or how can you take that away is just appalling to me.

AMANPOUR: Is that what some of the airmen say?

SMITH: Yes. Yes. They say that we're trying to feminize the military. I don't think that there's any need for that.

AMANPOUR: You mentioned your PTSD. Do you believe that's from the sexual assault? Is it from the combat that you witnessed in Iraq?

SMITH: I think it's a little -- actually, most of my symptoms trigger from loud noises and things like that, because there were a lot of RPG attacks. So -- and I think being under the stress that was there and some of the other things that I went through while there, it just -- it all kind of --

AMANPOUR: Came together.

SMITH: -- came together, yes. And it was -- it went all over when I got home.

AMANPOUR: And luckily your husband stepped in and your family --

SMITH: And luckily he's still with me, yes.

AMANPOUR: And luckily he's still with you.

We have also these incredible instances in this film, "Invisible War," of, for instance, Kora. She was in the Coast Guard. And her husband is a great help to her right now. And yet she displayed countersful of pills that are being prescribed to her, everything from antidepressants to antibiotics to -- I mean, just a whole gamut of pills.

There seems to be a lot of PTSD, a lot of suicide, a lot of trauma over this.

SMITH: Yes, it's a horrible -- because you feel like you can't turn anywhere. And when I first came home, I called mental health, probably two weeks after I returned back from Iraq, because I knew I wasn't right. I was very angry.

And I remember sitting at the desk and one of the airmen was talking and I wanted to take her by the back of the head and smash her face into the desk. And it wasn't just a thought; it was -- my hands were itching to do it.




SMITH: She had upset me. She's wasn't listening to what I told her to do. And that wasn't me.

AMANPOUR: So this is a -- you were her superior?

SMITH: Yes. Yes, and I wanted to physically harm her.



AMANPOUR: Again, when you and fellow women in the military tried to take these to your superior, I hear in the film, "Invisible War," that some of these lawyers were told, you go interrogate that woman until you get the truth, in other words, making you the suspect rather than the alleged assailant.

SMITH: The victim has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were raped. And the interesting thing about it is that you, when you come out and you say that you've either been assaulted or you're offended by something that you're seeing, they don't want anything to do with you. You lose credibility within your area.

I think one of the things that I was able to do was I was able to blend in. And you know, the number one thing that I always had on my mind was to have a servant's heart. And I wanted to please those pilots and I wanted to always make sure that I was maintaining discipline and order within my unit.

So when I was over in Iraq, I was one of the higher ranking ones. And I did not want to say this happened to me. But after it happened, I was so frightened for my airmen, it just --

AMANPOUR: Your juniors --

SMITH: -- oh, my goodness --

AMANPOUR: -- that it might happen to them?

SMITH: Yes, yes.

AMANPOUR: Did you warn them?

SMITH: All the time.

AMANPOUR: While you were there?

SMITH: Yes. I didn't tell them what happened but I said --

AMANPOUR: Look out?

SMITH: Yes. Watch your back.

AMANPOUR: You know, over the years, we've had Tailhook; we've had the scandal at the Marine barracks in D.C., the elite, the creme de la creme of the Marines are there. We've got sexual assault being prosecuted in Lackland Air Force Base in Texas right now. A lot of the alleged assailants are being basically let go for quote-unquote, "lack of evidence."

Describe for me the bawdiness. Tell me what it looks like in these -- when this stuff happens. What is it? Like you go to a bar or what? What happens?

SMITH: As far as an incident?


SMITH: For instance, when I was senior airman, I was walking down the street when I was in Korea and it was a bar district. I was out. I was not intoxicated. And I had -- they were doing a sweep at the time, the pilots were.

And I had a pilot, a bunch of them just run by me very fast and then one had actually grabbed me, threw me over his shoulder and then took me into a bar where they were doing a naming and threw me on top of the table.

AMANPOUR: And that's what, some kind of Air Force ceremony?

SMITH: That's where they get their call sign. All fighter pilots have a call sign. In fact, you know, General Welsh (ph) is an F-16 pilot. He has a call sign.

AMANPOUR: And what does that mean exactly?

SMITH: That you go through a naming ceremony, which usually involves pornography and it usually involves heavy drinking, abuse of alcohol and different things like that. And that's where the books come in, where they make up the stories.

AMANPOUR: And they threw you on a table for what?

SMITH: I'm not sure.

AMANPOUR: And you got out of there?

SMITH: I couldn't get out. The bar was so small and there were so many pilots I couldn't walk out.

AMANPOUR: So what happened? How did you get out?

SMITH: I just stayed and waited until they were done singing. And then I left.

AMANPOUR: So it was --


SMITH: -- till they kind of --

AMANPOUR: -- attack you?

SMITH: No, they -- it was almost like they were singing to me. It was very weird.

AMANPOUR: And what -- particularly since you were the superior of some of these people, right, or not?

SMITH: No, no.

AMANPOUR: It would only --

SMITH: I am their subordinate.

AMANPOUR: You were their subordinate.


AMANPOUR: And if you stood up and you made a -- I mean, if you really -- I don't know.

SMITH: I have before --

AMANPOUR: Fight back --

SMITH: Yes, I have --

AMANPOUR: -- scream at them, is it possible?

SMITH: I have said things I said that I thought were inappropriate, for instance, I had a young airman who had an altercation with another airman. And I felt that she was not treated properly. And I had a lieutenant colonel tell me that if I reported it that I would be kicking the hive. So just be prepared to be stung. And I just took that as --

AMANPOUR: A warning?

SMITH: -- a warning, yes.

AMANPOUR: What does this do to military morale, the cohesiveness of units, the kind of attitude and camaraderie that you need to fight wars and to be the greatest military in the world?

SMITH: I think for the Air Force, the camaraderie, it depends on what type of unit you're in. For instance, for the fighter squadrons, the enlisted usually just keep to themselves. But for being around that type of atmosphere for so long, it really makes you jaded. You know, because when I brought this stuff to Susan, I really didn't think it was that bad.


SMITH: Yes. I mean, I've heard those songs my whole career. So I thought it was -- I thought it was normal. I came in at 18, as soon as I turned 18. So this has been my normal since I can remember. And I thought it was acceptable. And I showed her some of the stuff and when she was appalled, I was like maybe I should --

AMANPOUR: Well, I mean, I'm appalled. I can't even believe -- I can't even read it. I'd be too embarrassed even to show my colleagues.

SMITH: Oh, yes.

AMANPOUR: It's so awful.

SMITH: It is. It is. And there's actually two F-16 pilots who were active duty who made a band called Dos Gringos. And they sell CDs on the side.

AMANPOUR: Of this pornography?

SMITH: Of that pornography. They're active duty pilots making money.

AMANPOUR: Active duty pilots making money off this?


AMANPOUR: Do you regret joining the Air Force?

SMITH: No, because I think maybe this was the purpose of me joining.

AMANPOUR: Sgt. Smith, thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you so much.


AMANPOUR: Regrettably, Sergeant Smith's harrowing tale is not unique. And after a break, we'll take a look at the film we've been talking about, the Oscar nominated documentary, "Invisible War," a vivid portrait of the face of sexual abuse in today's U.S. military when we return.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, from time to time, we like to bring you a glimpse of the documentaries that not only win prizes, but tell the stories that illuminate the most important issues of our time.

Now imagine a world where one such movie led to a congressional hearing and encouraged more women to break the military code of silence.

"The Invisible War," as we've been saying, looks at the lives of women who fought for their country and then had to fight to survive a sneak attack of sexual abuse. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They gave him Military Professional of the Year award during the rape investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They made it very, very clear if I said anything, they were going to kill me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Most Americans assume that there is access to a system of justice.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would think that because the military is about protecting our country that certainly they would want to protect their own.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're a country who needs every good soldier to make sure we have a strong military defense.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many women are leaving the military because they've been sexually assaulted or raped?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Civilians see it as being a military problem.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Those rapists are repetitive criminals. They do it again and again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They go on to literally prey upon women and men, girls and boys in our neighborhoods back home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When does this ever end?


AMANPOUR: When indeed? Despite the hearings, the promises, the betrayal of dedicated soldiers like Sgt. Smith remains the insidious enemy with the United States military. And we will continue to cover this and keep pushing for a change to these crimes that have been going on with impunity.

That's it for our program tonight. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.