The number of reported sexual assaults across the U.S. military shot up by more than 50 percent this year, an increase that defense officials say may suggest that victims are becoming more willing to come forward.
A tumultuous year of scandals shined a spotlight on the crimes and put pressure on the military to take aggressive action.
According to early data obtained by The Associated Press, more than 5,000 reports of sexual assault were filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared to the 3,374 in 2012. That increase, officials said, suggests that confidence in the system is growing and that victims are more willing to come forward.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton and co-chairman of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, has worked for several years on legislation to reform how the military deals with sexual assault in the ranks.
Among those enacted this month: A reform of Article 32 hearings to limit the scope of investigations to a probable cause determination of the alleged offense, would appoint an experienced military lawyer as the investigating officer, and allow the victim to choose not to attend a question and answer session during an investigatory hearing, according to Turner.
Additional reforms require each military branch to offer legal counsel to victims, a program the Air Force started last year; eliminates the ability of a convening authority, such as a commanding officer, to dismiss or modify a court martial conviction for rape or sexual assault; and allows a military commander to reassign or remove a service member accused of a sex-related crime from a unit where the alleged victim is also assigned, among other measures.
“These legislative initiatives are unprecedented and the most powerful steps made to date toward the eradication of sexual assault in the military,” Turner said recently.
Crimes are vastly underreported
Asked about the preliminary data, defense officials were cautious in their conclusions. But they said surveys, focus groups and meetings with service members throughout the year suggest that the number of actual incidents — from unwanted sexual contact and harassment to violent assaults — has remained largely steady.
“Given the multiple data points, we assess that this is more reporting,” said Col. Alan R. Metzler, deputy director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office. He also noted that more victims are agreeing to make official complaints, rather than simply seeking medical care without filing formal accusations.
The military has long struggled to get victims to report sexual harassment and assault in a stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and toughness. Too often, victims have said they were afraid to report assaults to ranking officers, or that their initial complaints were rebuffed or ignored.
As a result, the crime has been vastly underreported. That became evident when officials announced earlier this year that an anonymous survey had revealed that about 26,000 service members reported some type of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault.
According to the latest numbers, the increase in reports across the services ranges from a low of about 45 percent for the Air Force to a high of 86 percent for the Marines, the smallest service. The Navy had an increase of 46 percent and the Army, by far the largest military service, had a 50 percent jump.
As Congress debated changes in the military’s justice system, the Pentagon and the services instituted new training programs that targeted service members as well as top commanders and officers.
Several of the new programs were aimed at encouraging service members to be more vigilant, and to look out for each other and intercede if they saw a bad situation developing. There also were moves to restrict alcohol sales, since drinking has long been associated with sexual assault and harassment.
By year’s end, lawmakers passed legislation that strengthens legal rights for victims and strips military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions. It also requires a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and requires that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.
Defense officials beat back efforts to more drastically change the military justice system that would take authority away from commanders and allow victims of rape and sexual assault to go outside the chain of command for prosecutions.
Still, military leaders acknowledge a lot of work remains to be done.