PARK CITY, Utah - It is estimated nearly one in three female US soldiers is a victim of sexual aggression in the military, a little-known fact highlighted in a film screened at the Sundance festival.
The documentary "The Invisible War," by American director Kirby Dick, is in competition at the independent movie-fest, which continues until Sunday in the US ski resort of Park City, Utah.
Dick, a Sundance regular, has a background of examining contentious issues. His film "Twist of Faith," about pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church, was shown here in 2005 en route to being nominated for a best documentary Oscar.
No film has ever been made that specifically deals with sexual violence against female soldiers by their own comrades-at-arms, the filmmaker told AFP, adding: "The military have been very secretive about this.
"It's been a cover-up for generations. They know the extent of this problem; they have done nothing about it, and nothing to inform the public, which is their responsibility."
The documentary, built around powerful testimony from female -- and one male -- rape victims, shows how trauma stems not only from the assault, but also from the indifference, or even hostility, from the army when they seek justice.
"It's compared with incest, because you are inculcated with that idea that they are your brothers and sisters," said Dick, recounting an explanation given by a psychologist in his film.
"And when your 'brother' rapes you, that's devastating," he said.
Apart from a lack of serious efforts to prevent sexual abuse, the other problem is the almost total absence of disciplinary action, which is in the hands of the assailant's and victim's superiors, he said. In 25 percent of cases of sexual abuse, the person who has the final say in whether an investigation is launched is the alleged rapist himself.
"That's the thing that is so clearly problematic. It's clearly a conflict of interest, and it's the one thing that allows things to become buried," said the director.
The victim's nightmare doesn't end there: having lodged a complaint, they often find themselves sidelined, or their career progression can be blocked altogether.
Even worse, they themselves can face disciplinary action, as, for example, in the case of one female soldier whose rape claim was shelved, but who was later condemned for adultery.
The disillusionment of victims is even more painful because they have often chosen the army as a vocation they hold in high esteem.
"I gained more understanding and respect for people who are going into the military. There's a real ideal there," said Dick, who insists his film is not against the army itself.
"What we heard over and over and over from women, is that when they were in units with good commanders and zero tolerance about harassment, there was no problem at all. It was better than the civilian world, for them," he said.
"I do know that most of the soldiers in the military are horrified by this. But because there is no effective way to investigate and prosecute these crimes, it's really running rampant."
He said the best hope for change is in how alleged assaults are dealt with in judicial terms, by switching from military prosecutions to having cases dealt with by civil courts.
Some victims have joined together to press US lawmakers in Congress to pass a new law covering the issue.
"That is going to be a real fight, because all these officers have been brought up with that idea that they are God in their units and they make the decision on everything.
"So that's very hard to change. I think it's going to be a decade-long fight," he added.