Military Sexual Assault Survivors Need Pro Bono Counsel
By Kori Cioca, U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, Survivor and Advocate
Peace is Loud is a nonprofit organization providing a creative approach to conflict prevention, gender equality and peacebuilding through media and live events. Our cross-media projects, speakers bureau and social action campaigns highlight the voices of women peace leaders and underline the crucial importance of women’s voices in peacebuilding efforts. One of the women on our speakers bureau, Kori Cioca, a proud veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and survivor of military sexual assault featured in the Academy-Award nominated film The Invisible War, authored the following piece.
Serving in the U.S. Coast Guard was my dream job. I loved the idea of serving my country, and being a part of a unit that had my back. When I was raped by my supervisor, I quickly realized that the military was not on my side, and that their idea of justice wasn’t either. My only option to stand up against my rapist was to work with investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys all provided by my employer — the military — within a system designed to protect perpetrators.
The prosecutor assigned to me told me, “He’s going to get away with a slap on the hand, [so] just testify and leave”. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t producing the evidence that I knew existed and why prior assault charges weren’t brought to light to show the criminal pattern of my perpetrator. I also wasn’t given any instructions on other available options to obtain justice. I only found out years later that I could have filed charges against him in a civilian court, but by then so much time had gone by that my statute of limitations had ran out.
Even if I had known of the civilian court option, I wouldn’t have had the resources to pay for defense, and the Veterans Affairs (VA) office certainly isn’t equipped to help either. In fact, they are barely in a position to provide basic medical expenses and to assist with filing paperwork.
When I was discharged and needed medical and mental health treatment for the sexual assault I experienced, my local Veterans Affairs Officer was awed as to how I could have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without being a combat veteran. He seemed offended that I would claim that, despite my medical records showing that it had been diagnosed. He asked me, “What was so traumatic in the Coast Guard?” This type of treatment is why females are afraid to come forward or ask for help.
We are in need of more lawyers and advocates who are willing to work pro bono for survivors. While Senator Claire McCaskill backed a bill that allows victims to use their own, non-military counsel during trial, this does not solve the problem of resources. And while there are wonderful non-profit organizations set up to help military sexual trauma survivors, they are mostly focused on policy change (which is important), and unable to provide direct services.
I am distressed. Not just from the PTSD from being raped, but also for all the other women who are currently serving this country and being raped at their jobs. I keep wondering, “Will they have capable, trustworthy advocates and prosecutors?”
Being discharged from the military with a psychological disorder and because of medical needs is stressful enough, but then handling the stacks of papers required by the VA Office, and being forced to jump the hurdles and dodge the red tape maze — which seems designed to exhaust veterans to the point of giving up — has survivors feeling helpless. I wouldn’t wish that, or the feeling of being alone in what I was going through, on anyone.
After my story was told in the film The Invisible War, I heard from survivors across the country who saw their own story reflected in mine. For all of us who have survived sexual assault in the military, including the countless ones who may never tell their story, we need lawyers and advocates to stand with us.
Kori Cioca is a proud veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and a survivor of military sexual assault featured in the documentary film The Invisible War. She is also a public speaker through nonprofit organization Peace is Loud.