The Invisible War is a documentary feature showing at SFF that tackles the epidemic of sexual assault in the US military. The film has already won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award/US Documentary and is sure to create quite a stir at SFF. I talked with Tailhook whistleblower Paula Puopolo (she went by Paula Coughlin during the time of the scandal) about Tailhook, her involvement with the film and the appalling lack of change in the past 20 years.
“I was asked to participate in this film as a source of historical perspective because 20 years ago, basically, a mushroom cloud went up from the Pentagon because of my complaint. There were big repercussions through Navy leadership. The Secretary of the Navy had to resign for his failures in leadership during the investigation. They called it the Tailhook scandal. Tailhook was a Navy symposium that had been held annually in Vegas for 20 or 30 years at the time. It was outrageously out of control. When I walked down that hotel hallway, I was assaulted by a huge group, maybe about 100, of naval aviators. They knocked me to the floor and took me out. When I complained to my boss he said, ‘That’s what you get.’ I thought that was wrong and I pressed on, eventually writing a letter to the Secretary of the Navy for Aviation, who eventually had to resign. There was a series of missteps by the military handling my complaint.
“I’m in the film discussing how big an event it was and what a revelation it was for Navy leadership to find that this was happening. I’m in the movie to talk about it and the parallels that exist between what happened 20 years ago and what is still happening. They still mistreat the victims of sexual assault. The chain of command is still subjectively not punishing the perpetrators and the frequency of sexual assault is exponentially worse. They’ve made no real changes. They’ve made no improvements and it’s actually worse. It floors me. It’s deeply saddening and frustrating and makes me crazy. There were several other women who were victimized at that symposium, but they were all just listed in the Inspector General’s reports as Victim 1, Victim 2, Victim 98, but I was Victim Coughlin. I was the face and I was the lightening rod for everyone who lashed out against our claims. I have a room full of hate mail on how I ‘ruined the Navy.’ How I ‘shouldn’t have been there.’ President H. W. Bush and I had a conversation about it and he said it seemed like a generational thing, which implied that in his generation, officers were gentlemen and these young whippersnappers are misbehaving. That it was time to get back to the way the Navy used to be. To have this tete a tete with the President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Military 20 years ago and now know that nothing’s changed is really awful.
“It comes from the mindset that what men do in the military is too important. They can’t share that job with women. It comes down to subjugation of violent crime. It comes down to so many different things that are not addressed in the work environment of the military. To me, it’s like a cancer. If that’s the kind of ethics and morals the military is tolerating, who do we really have protecting and representing us overseas? It’s frightening.We need to raise awareness that this silent epidemic is happening and that’s why the film is called The Invisible War. These women are under siege. It’s such a horrific abuse of power to be serving alongside somebody in a military environment with a common cause: to protect and uphold the constitution of the United States, and have that betrayal happen.
“People need to understand that that’s where it starts. As citizens, people need to understand that that is a problem. There are avenues out there now to help move Congress in the right direction towards actually making the military environment more aware and tolerant and making it a real crime and sending these perpetrators to jail. At this point, worse case scenario, they get kicked out of the military. Then they’re a rapist out in your community! People should be appalled. There is legislation underfoot now and it has bipartisan support. It’s called the STOP Act. This is the first time that our government and leadership has stepped in to change the way sexual assault, criminal violent acts towards women in the military, is being handled. This is the first opportunity for the general public to do something. They should be contacting their legislators and saying I support this legislation. When you are a proud parent sending someone off into the military, the last thing you think of is that they could be raped by someone they work with. Unfortunately, right now in the military if you send your daughter, niece, sister, wife, etc off to serve, her chances of being sexually assaulted by someone she works with are greater than her actually being wounded in combat. The numbers are staggering and horrific. See the film and hang on to your hat.”
Strong, confident and determined, Paula has been campaigning heavily in favor of the STOP Act. More information on sexual assault in the military, testimonials, and how you can make a difference can be found at http://www.protectourdefenders.com. The Invisible War will be showing Tuesday April 17, 7pm at the Hollywood 20.