CONTENT WARNING: Some brutal details regarding sexual assault are written about in this article.
I’m left emotionally drained and powerfully moved after attending the Vanderbilt University Project Safe Center’s hosting of Kori Cioca, a stoic former military servicewoman who was sexually assaulted while serving with the U.S. Coast Guard. Her story is vividly outlined in the 2014 Academy-Award Best Documentary Feature Nominee The Invisible War, which I urge everyone to watch.
Since being featured in the film, Cioca has received recognition for her courage, including being named in a 2012 Newsweek magazine feature as one of the “150 Fearless Women in the World.” Ms. Cioca began with describing how she wanted to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces ever since she was a little girl. She fulfilled that childhood dream, joining the U.S. Coast Guard in 2005. She loved the camaraderie, teamwork, and equal treatment required in boot camp, and expected the same would be true after she was stationed at a base in Saginaw, Michigan. However, after a progression of derisive and horrible emotional abuse by Cioca’s commanding officer—at one point, he spit in her face for tying a specific knot incorrectly—he brutally raped her. Ms. Cioca described in very graphic and visceral detail how he grabbed her hair, forced himself upon her, and hit her so hard during the incident that her jaw was dislocated. She was forthright in that she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); she relives the event so vividly that she can even remember the scents. In addition to the unimaginable emotional consequences, Cioca was treated with multiple different prescription medications, such as muscle relaxants, for her jaw, but she still has permanent physical damage to this day.
When Cioca went to report the rape, the base’s Senior Chief was dismissive, saying that they needed the commanding officer to provide a training to other servicemen and servicewomen, and that took precedent. Eventually, there was a court martial hearing, but only after she underwent emotional torment: the trial was held at the base she was raped at. Even worse, she was forced to wait before the hearing in the very area on base where she was raped. Despite admitting to hitting her and having sex with her, he was not dismissed, only receiving a gentle “tap on the wrist.” He could resume his duties after a 3-month suspension period. This is despite the commanding officer’s previous charges of sexual assault. Nevertheless, he since has finally been convicted after sexually assaulting yet another female servicewoman.
All this seems potent when considering recent heightened debates over Title IX and campus sexual assault adjudications under the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. There are undoubtedly many parallels. What struck me most, however, was that I was only one of five male students, in a room full of at least twenty female students. This was something Ms. Cioca rightfully made a point about. Toward the end of her speech, she discussed how the narrative must change, and men bear a great deal of responsibility in breaking this cycle, too. Cioca said the first step is to “kill the messenger.” She elaborated by explaining that this is an expression in the military that has come to mean a zero-tolerance policy toward a pervasive rape culture. Dismantling it starts through simple but strong means, such as in the way the military condones speaking and joking around in explicit and inappropriate sexual manners.
Cioca ended on a positive note: there is hope. Some facilities are asking her to speak at trainings and are providing mandatory screenings of the documentary feature. She narrated her encounters during some of these visits to the trainings. She began noticing that lewd and vulgar sexual jokes directed especially toward female servicewomen were beginning to be handled and disciplined more seriously. She stated, for example, that one lieutenant she met dismissed a male cadet after he repeatedly verbally sexually harassed other female cadets, despite warnings.
I’m inclined to agree: this kind of zero tolerance policy is important to send a clear message, both in the military and on college campuses. There is also an intersection of the two: various U.S. Armed Forces branches’ ROTC programs. Indeed, Greek Life organizations are designed as systems that have an inherent hierarchical structure and a “chain of command.” Yet, in the face of injustice, one must rise above one’s rank or stature.
The “kill the messenger” narrative that Cioca effuses is something we need to emulate at colleges and universities throughout the country, too. But especially at Vanderbilt University. Only we Commodores can stop this epidemic across campus. We have a choice to not stay on the sidelines and watch as some of our classmates gravely mistreat one another. This mistreatment can be manifested by our verbiage all the way to how some approach sexual encounters without the respect and dignity it deserves. So please, speak up if you are concerned. Intervene and potentially prevent a fellow classmate having to undergo such a devastating incident. Thank you, Ms. Cioca, for your bravery.