Sexual assaults in the military are down and victims are more likely to report the crime, according to the latest numbers released Thursday that advocates say show recent changes are beginning to make a dent in what had become a crisis for the Pentagon.
Figures released by the Rand Corp., an independent government-supported research center, estimated that 20,000 men and women in the military’s 1.3 million active force said they were the victims last year of sexual assault — a catchall term that encompasses unwanted sexual contact, or attempts, up to and including rape. Both men and women reported fewer assaults, Rand said.
Meanwhile, about 25 percent of victims said they reported the crime, up from just 10 percent two years earlier.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has made stamping out sex crimes a top priority, declared at a press briefing that the military has seen “measurable progress” but “we still have a long way to go.”
While overall reporting increased, it remained low among men, only 10 percent of whom reported the crime, suggesting “we have a long way to go in fighting the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting among men,” Mr. Hagel said.
Rand reported one surprise. Its survey’s intrusive questioning found that there were “more penetrative assaults than previously thought.” Nearly half of women (4,214) who said they were assaulted, and one-third of men (3,850), were victims of “penetrative” attacks, the report said.
Lawmakers largely praised the report, saying that it showed the military was listening to outrage among those on Capitol Hill, though they acknowledged there is still work to be done, especially to eliminate retaliation against those who do come forward.
“The report that the Defense Department released today provides some hard evidence that we’re making progress to end the scourge of unwanted sexual contact,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The steps that we have taken in Congress and in the military are having an effect.”
One area where the data showed no improvement from 2012 is retaliation. More than 60 percent of victims who reported an attack perceived some form of retaliation, though most of that is social retaliation among peers, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat.
A smaller portion of victims have seen retaliation from superiors, though even that doesn’t rise to the level of top-level commanders who are making decisions about which cases should be prosecuted, she said.
Stung both by the high number of unreported assaults and several high-profile cases, Congress and the Pentagon pushed for changes last year. Among those changes were mandatory dishonorable discharges for those convicted of sexual assault and a review by the secretary of the service if a commander declined to bring a case to trial that a staff judge advocate recommended to prosecute.
While many saw the report as a positive step forward, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, said the new statistics back up her push to strip military commanders of their ability to prosecute sexual assault cases.
She wants to place that decision with a military lawyer outside the chain of command, which she said will cut down on retaliation.
“For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous defense bill were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime,” she said. “It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62 percent of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against — nearly two-thirds — the exact same number as last year.”
Ms. McCaskill, who opposes Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal, said that while retaliation is too high, the problem wasn’t commanders. She said nearly three-fourths of victims were happy with their commander’s response and would recommend other victims to report the crimes.
Mr. Hagel also announced some changes from the Defense Department to try to decrease the stagnant retaliation statistics, including new training for junior offices to ensure a culture of accountability trickles down throughout the command.
The department could see more reforms to sexual assault programs in this year’s defense policy bill, which is expected to clear Congress next week. One change would give a special victims counsel more access to courtrooms.
Thursday’s reported drop in assaults could also be due to changes in the survey method.
Some conservatives said the previous surveys, conducted by the Pentagon and its Defense Manpower Data Center, were tailored to reach those with an interest in the topic, thus creating a skewed pool.
The Pentagon responded to criticism by shipping survey duties to an outside pollster — Rand Corp. — which made some significant changes.
Rand sent email invites to all 200,000 service women and over 300,000 men. Of the 560,000 emails, 170,000 active duty troops went online and answered the survey. That is a response rate of about 30 percent, compared with 20 percent in 2012.
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