Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, right, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and his senior executive advisor, Nate Galbreath, say a rise in the number of sex assault reports is a sign that more victims are comfortable coming forward to report their attacks to the system. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
Reports of military sexual assaults soared by 50 percent last year, according to new data released Thursday.
But Pentagon officials say that’s good news because it means more troops are coming forward to report sexual assaults, seeking help and offering information for prosecuting offenders.
At the same time, officials acknowledge that only a small fraction of those reports led to courts-martial.
“We have a long way to go before we get close to solving this problem,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday as the 2013 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military was released.
Officials say the 5,061 reports of sexual assaults filed in 2013 do not necessarily suggest a rise in crimes committed. It’s impossible to know whether that number, up from fewer than 3,400 the year before, reflects an actual increase in sexual assaults because comparatively few attacks are officially reported.
When surveyed anonymously in 2012, about 26,000 troops said they experienced “unwanted sexual contact” during the prior year.
The spike in reports “indicates to us that victims have greater confidence in our response system,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, who heads the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Pressure from Congress
The Pentagon faces mounting pressure from Congress on the issue of sexual assault, with some lawmakers pushing for a change in law that would strip commanders of their authority to oversee those prosecutions.
In response, Hagel has made sexual assault a top priority and adopted a series of new rules and programs aimed at encouraging victims to come forward. That includes a special advocacy program that provides victims with legal representation if necessary.
Last year, 197 service members were court-martialed and convicted of an offense directly related to a sexual assault that will require future registration as a sex offender. That amounts to less than 10 percent of the 2,049 cases in which commanders had legal jurisdiction over the alleged offenders.
For the first time this year, military officials cast a spotlight on sexual assaults on men, which data suggest are more prevalent than commonly thought and far more under-reported than attacks on females.
Hagel announced a new forcewide effort to improve reporting among male victims. Among the male victims, officials estimate that about 35 percent were attacked by another man; 40 percent were assaulted by a woman, and about 25 percent of assault cases involved both a man and a woman.
Men made up 14 percent of victims who came forward to make official reports last year, according to the data released Thursday. Yet men make up more than 50 percent of total military sexual assault victims, according to the Defense Department’s most recent Workplace and Gender Survey, which is based on confidential responses from active-duty troops.
About half of the estimated 14,000 male victims of sexual assault say the most serious assault they experienced was limited to unwanted sexual touching, according to the 2012 Workplace and Gender Survey.
The military broadly defines sexual assault as anything from rape and sodomy to unwanted sexual contact, such as inappropriate touching or grabbing.
Prosecuting sexual assaults is fraught with challenges for commanders. Some victims refuse to cooperate with investigators; some suspects are not in the military. In some cases, evidence is weak and the cases are dismissed. And many cases are resolved before reaching a court-martial.
A breakdown of the newly released data for 2013:
■ DoD received 5,061 reports of sexual assault, but nearly one-third, or 1,293, were “restricted” reports, meaning the victim sought only medical attention and chose not to disclose the identity of the attacker or assist in an investigation and prosecution.
■ Of the 3,234 investigations closed in 2013 that involved unrestricted reports — victims who offered to help authorities find and prosecute their attackers — military lawyers concluded that they did not have legal jurisdiction in 1,086 of those cases. For example, the attacker may have been a civilian.
■ Of the 2,149 cases in which military commanders had a suspect, legal jurisdiction and a victim willing to assist in an investigation, commanders found insufficient evidence to take disciplinary action in about 580 cases.
■ Of the 1,569 cases in which commanders found enough evidence to take disciplinary action against a service member, 382 resulted in disciplinary action for misconduct other than sexual assault.
■ Of the 1,187 cases that resulted in disciplinary action for sexual assault-related misconduct, about 356 resulted in no trial and were resolved through either nonjudicial punishment or administrative action, such as a letter of reprimand.
■ In the 838 cases in which commanders initiated courts-martial proceedings last year, courts-martial were not formally convened in 223 cases either because the charges were dismissed or the service member separated in lieu of a court-martial. In 131 cases, courts-martial proceedings that began in 2013 remained pending into this year.
■ In the 484 cases that resulted in a court-martial, 370 service members were convicted on some charge.
■ Of those 370 convictions, 197 involved charges directly related to sexual assault that will require future sex-offender registration.