One Story Becomes Many

By Kori Cioca

[Photo: "The Invisible War"]

[Photo: “The Invisible War”]

Editor’s Note: Kori Cioca joined the Coast Guard in 2005. As she recounts in Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, she soon became a target for harassment and, ultimately, sexual assault at the hands of a supervisor. The assault left her with permanent injuries, while a discharge from the military left her feeling isolated and struggling to cope with PTSD and the cost of medical care. It was at this time in her life that she agreed to share her story with the filmmakers. After the film’s premiere at Sundance in 2012, The Invisible War received immediate acclaim—including an Oscar nomination—and renewed efforts by advocates and government officials to bring greater attention to the problem of military sexual trauma. The film’s credits tout its substantive effects on policymakers’ attitudes; they report that two days after seeing the film, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta mandated significant changes in how sexual assault cases are handled across all branches of the military. Cioca’s voice was instrumental to the film’s impact with audiences as well. One reviewer from National Public Radio put it this way in June 2012: “Kori Cioca is the linking thread among many stories in The Invisible War. In this essay, Cioca reflects on her experiences as a survivor of rape and a subject in The Invisible War, recounting her first-hand observations of how storytelling can promote healing and, in the process, spark a grassroots firestorm.

It was supposed to be one interview and, even though I was nervous, I agreed. I was scared to think of how these filmmakers, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, would look at me once I told them what happened to me. But I told them my story.

Joining the United States Coast Guard was an honor. Earning the uniform I wore filled my life with purpose, determination and overflowing pride. It was something I fought hard for and the odds were against me. I was a petite female, standing 4’11 and a half inches tall, weighing in at maybe 100 pounds. I gave it my all and I won. I could call myself a “Coastie” and serve my country. I went to my first duty station only to walk into a pit of harassment and abuse that would rip my life from me. I was spit on, both in the face and at my feet. I was called vulgar names, touched, grinded against and stalked. My supervisor studied every aspect of me, and anyone who tried to help was run off by the use of force and intimidation. I was hit in the face when rejecting his blunt propositions to touch him. My fellow Command members turned a blind eye to the torture. The lack of supervision and my blatant fear of him fueled his wrath.

He raped me. I had fought to be a part of the team, and I couldn’t fight my team member off of me. To be honest, I always thought I could handle myself in a violent situation, that I could keep myself safe.

I let myself down. I shut up and I was kept quiet by my Chain of Command with their threats. Anytime I tried to stand up, I was kicked back down and forced to shut up. After so many hits, there came a point during which I had to make a choice of whether or not to get back up, and I didn’t. I was sent for medical treatment from my injuries, which were a dislocated jaw, TMJ and bilateral disc displacement. When it’s apparent that a service member’s condition may permanently interfere with his or her ability to serve on active duty, a physician typically recommends what’s called a medical board—one of the steps toward receiving a medical discharge, which guarantees the service member will receive proper care after leaving the military. In my case, these steps weren’t followed. I was given an honorable discharge, but my medical board was terminated—which is not allowed when someone has injuries from service.

My faith in humanity was gone. Life as I knew it was over. There was nothing left for me but physical pain, every day. I felt like killing myself was the only option, because I felt dead already and wanted out of a world I had grown to hate. While my husband was on duty, I went to get more narcotics to fulfill my ultimate escape plan. And yet, a heart was found still beating. Not mine, but that of the little girl who was growing inside me. Even after what I had endured, due to religious beliefs I couldn’t bear the thought of murdering myself, and a child, too.

Holding my daughter was like being hit with a defibrillator that jumpstarted my heart. She is a miracle and a reason to fight harder in life. I worry what her little eyes get to see with my everyday physical pain and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’m haunted thinking that when she’s older she might look at me as weak, or mimic my fears and reactions and end up like me.

For the first five years of her life, I was a problem. I sat, filling prescriptions to dull the pain. My PTSD was something we tried but failed to hide from family members. We were misunderstood and I was hated. Even today, my little family lives with everyday effects of my trauma. My own mother, who fought like hell with Congress to get me help, has carried her own anger and grief from being helpless as well. It’s important to remember: trauma is not limited to just the survivor. The families of survivors hurt too, all the time. Because of what happened to me, everyone we knew stayed away or we pushed them away, because we felt we had no other choice.

Then two filmmakers contacted me. Susan Burke, a lawyer who is also featured in The Invisible War, put them in touch with me because they wanted to do a story on Military Sexual Trauma (MST). During the interview I looked up to find Kirby and Amy crying with me. Perfect strangers were crying with me. Not looking at me in a disgusting way or saying something to hurt me more, but actually crying with me. That was the first time I’d ever had anyone actually cry with me, to feel that with me. I was actually so confused by it that I forgot my senses about what I was going to tell them, and I said to them, “Are you okay?” And they were like, “No, are YOU okay?” I said, “I don’t know.” They’re just these amazing people. I got in touch with so many other survivors, because to be honest, when the lawsuit came, I really thought I was the only one who’d been raped, because that’s how the Coast Guard made me feel.

Throughout the filming, it felt like I was talking to my closest friends, being supported and loved. That big black camera that was once so intimidating became just another object in the room.

Kirby and Amy ended up following me for two years and I discovered that they were not just filmmakers. They were silent soldiers; the ones never spoken of or heard about and without uniforms to recognize them. The silent soldiers, civilians who storm in, unrecognized, with compassion and determination to help others. Their mission was to help all victims and survivors who have been kicked down to finally able stand again, this time not on their own but with a healthy support system. It was like they saw me lying there where the military left me, picked me up, dusted me off and said, “How can we help?” Throughout the filming, it felt like I was talking to my closest friends, being supported and loved. That big black camera that was once so intimidating became just another object in the room.

The documentary, The Invisible War, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and with just that first screening, my life was altered. A lot of people came up to me afterwards, and I still get a bunch of letters everyday on Facebook from these active-duty soldiers that I just spoke to, telling me that I personally touched their lives. It was real for them because they actually got to see a face of what happens, not just the training the military offers. Sitting in a room and seeing the training that they have on rape prevention, it’s not going to work. They need actual people, actual survivors to come in and hear them, hear how it destroys their lives. Otherwise they’re just going to play on their phones or mess around or not take it seriously. In addition to Kirby and Amy, I have also been approached by other silent soldiers, these civilian soldiers I’m convinced are straight from God. They are advocates, fellow survivors, a whole community of individuals fighting for me and for others like me. Up until that point everything had failed me—the military and the Veterans Affairs system. I felt like my physical injuries would plague me and my family for the rest of my life. Hope didn’t exist in my vocabulary anymore.

[Photo: Annistique Photography]

[Photo: Annistique Photography]

Meeting Barbara and Eric Dobkin, leaders of the Dobkin Family Foundation, changed all of that. I was told by these soldiers—now my friends—that I would no longer suffer at the hand of the military, and that they were going to support me as I moved forward. They embraced me tightly as I cried. I could barely speak the words “Thank you.” I had to leave right after and get to a bathroom where I could catch my breath. I spent 20 minutes sitting in an empty bathroom crying and praying. I also felt undeserving because I even though I knew from being a part of the film that telling my story gave me power, I still felt my life was uncertain. I’m not sure if it was the way they said it or the New York accent that was intimidating to me, but I took the offer and it was clear that they wouldn’t quit on me or let me quit on myself. They have been paying for my medical care since. You can’t tell by reading this, but I stopped typing for a moment. My chest hurts and my eyes burn when I think of these silent soldiers. I hope the VA takes a look at these perfect strangers and how they are helping this veteran, and start treating theirs with the same kindness and sense of urgency as the Dobkins.

After Sundance, The Invisible War, which was made for our voices to be heard, transformed into a thundering voice for the entire world to hear.

I began speaking after screenings of the film, which were always followed by hugs, support and inspiration. At a screening in Cleveland, Ohio, I had a man approach me wanting to help our family in any way possible (another silent soldier). I let him know my medical care was being taken care of and his emotional support would be enough. He was persistent, and asked me to please email him and let him know how we were doing. That was two years ago. I still hear from him every day, just to check in. It took some getting used to. Not only was he a stranger, but he is also a very busy business owner who has mounds of things to do. Yet he still takes the time to stop every day and remember us. He isn’t a stranger any more—he’s family. All because of a documentary everything that was needed for so long, I don’t have to need at all. I finally have the support I needed to stand and fight. My voice has been retrieved and I have become Not Invisible.

To end this, I want to say “Thank you” to all the silent soldiers making a difference in people’s lives, including mine. You are saving others in ways you could never even fathom. I’m forever indebted to you for your kindness and compassion. I have learned a huge lesson because of you—that an individual is never defined by the uniform she wears, but rather by the strength of her character. To those who are in a tough spot – don’t give up, you’re not alone. There are silent soldiers out there that will find you, even if you’re not looking for them. To the military Commands and members I have screened with, thank you for your support and dedication to change the culture and raise awareness in your ranks. You are the difference; please continue making it.

If you are reading this and wondering what you can do, it’s simple: become a silent soldier too. Host a screening of The Invisible War, volunteer at your local VA, let survivors know they are not invisible. Be watchful for others who may need help, even if it’s just to listen. If you feel so inclined to offer a donation, I highly recommend The Dobkin Family Foundation, they are my saving grace.

Ultimately, I am at loss for words when I think of my silent soldiers, except for the one they gave back to me—hope.

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