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Holding the Government Accountable

10th Annual Ridenhour Prizes Honor 'Courageous Truth-Telling'

The signs were always there, even if our military leaders chose to ignore them or the general public, with its short attention span, moved on to worry about something else.

There was the Navy’s Tailhook scandal in 1991 that was largely brushed off as a “boys will be boys” episode. There were the stories about cadets being sexually assaulted and harassed at our service academies or the “isolated” cases of officers being charged with rape.

The statistics can no longer be ignored. One in five female soldiers is sexually assaulted, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel told the audience Wednesday at the 10th Annual Ridenhour Prizes in Washington, D.C. Female soldiers in combat zones are more likely to be raped than killed in combat, she said.

“These numbers are so staggering to almost numb us,” said vanden Heuvel, as she introduced the filmmakers behind The Invisible War, winner of the 2013 Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.

Like the other Ridenhour Prize winners, The Invisible War told a story that demanded to be told, even if there were people who would rather ignore it.

Amy Ziering, the film’s producer, said she and director Kirby Dick never expected the film would have the impact it did. The film has been cited in Congressional hearings, all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have seen it, and the military is using it to raise awareness about sexual assault.

“This is a film we were told time and time again not to pursue,” Ziering said. “We were told not to waste our time—no one would listen.”

This year’s other winners include NASA climate scientist James Hansen, author Seth Rosenfeld and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

The awards are given to those who exemplify the courage and truth-telling of the late Ron Ridenhour, the former U.S. Army helicopter gunner who exposed the My Lai Massacre based on accounts he had heard from fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War.

Joe Romm, editor of Climate Progress, introduced Hansen by calling him a “Paul Revere” of our time. And while energy industry backers have labeled Hansen an “alarmist,” Romm says the “truth is we should all be alarmed.”

Hansen won the Ridenhour Courage Prize for sounding the alarm about the threat of climate change, including getting arrested five times at peaceful protests.

Also honored were Seth Rosenfeld for his book, “Subversives,” and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas for having the moral courage to tell his story as an undocumented immigrant.

Rosenfeld, who was awarded the Ridenhour Book Prize, told the disturbing story of the FBI’s often illegal attempts to monitor, infiltrate and undermine campus “radicals” at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s.

He said his research for the book showed that the government’s first response when faced with things it wants to keep quiet is often to “lie, conceal and cover-up.”

Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter, who told his story in a New York Times Magazine piece titled, “My Life as an Undocumented American,” added the voice of a former Pulitzer Prize winner to the immigration debate. Vargas was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

While he couldn’t attend the ceremony, Vargas addressed the packed room at the National Press Club in a video message.

“I am an American,” said Vargas, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines as a child. “I just don’t have the papers to show to you.”

All of the winners displayed the courage of their convictions in the spirit of the prize’s namesake.

Ridenhour would say that My Lai still matters because we keep finding ways to repeat it, said Randy Fertel, who helped found the awards to honor his friend.

As many as 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers—many of them women, children and the elderly—were killed during the mass murder at My Lai on March 16, 1968.

After he finished his tour in Vietnam, Ridenhour, who later became an award-winning investigative journalist, wrote letters to 30 Members of Congress, telling them about the massacre—an effort that eventually led to congressional hearings and one criminal conviction. Ridenhour passed away in 1998.

In attendance at Wednesday’s events were several former Ridenhour Prize honorees, including one of the inaugural winners, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson. The prizes are sponsored by the Fertel Foundation and the Nation Institute and include the Government Accountability Project, the Fund for Constitutional Government and the Project On Government Oversight as strategic partners.

Fertel said the lasting legacy of the Ridenhour Prize is that it has created a community committed to courageous truth-telling.