Reports of sexual assaults across the military increased slightly last year, with the Air Force showing the biggest jump of all the services at 9%, according to a Defense Department report released Thursday.
The annual report shows an overall increase of 3% in the number of reports filed by or about military members during 2019. That percentage is much smaller than the previous year's jump of 13%, which fueled congressional complaints that the Pentagon was failing to adequately address the problem.
Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said he’s cautiously optimistic that the lower increase suggests a trend in declining assaults, but said it’s too difficult to tell because the crime is vastly under-reported.
“We are really aware of the high cost of not succeeding in this,” Galbreath said, adding that the assaults can affect military readiness as well as young people’s willingness to join or stay in the armed services.
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He said reports of sexual assault have steadily increased since 2006, as the department worked to encourage victims to come forward. He said the military is implementing a number of programs to train unit leaders on how to better reach out to their young service members.
One new program is a move to root out serial offenders, and so far it has identified five alleged repeat attackers.
Many victims don’t file criminal reports, which means investigators can’t pursue those alleged attackers. Under this new system, Galbreath said victims who don't want to file a public criminal report are encouraged to confidentially provide details about their alleged attacker so that investigators can see if they are involved in other crimes.
The new program allows law enforcement to be more aware of possible assailants or see if someone they may already be investigating has been involved in multiple cases.
Since last October, nearly 240 victims agreed to file the confidential information, leading investigators to the five alleged repeat offenders.
The most dramatic change in the overall totals this year was in the Marine Corps — the only service to have fewer reported assaults than last year. The number fell by about 6% from 1,228 in 2018 to 1,149 in 2019. All the other services saw increases.
“It is too soon to tell if this is an anomaly or the start of a trend,” said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Craig Thomas, adding that surveys consistently show that victims are reluctant to report assaults because they fear retribution, think they won't be believed, or worry it will make others question their masculinity. More than 20% of the Marine victims were male.
He said that while the Corps continues to beef up training and treatment programs to eliminate the bad behavior and hold offenders accountable, “senior Marine leaders do not necessarily equate lower reports of sexual assault with lower instances of this offense.”
The Pentagon releases a report every year on the number of sexual assaults in the military. Because sexual assault is a highly under-reported crime, the department sends out an anonymous survey every two years to get a clearer picture of the problem. That survey was done last year, so isn't part of this year's report.
According to the latest report, the total number of reported sexual assaults went from 6,053 in 2018 to 7,825 last year. The Air Force, with the largest jump, went from 1,544 in 2018 to 1,683 in 2019.
Ann Stefanek, spokeswoman for the Air Force, said that based on this year's report, the service will continue to focus training on younger members, and specifically work with mid-level leaders who can influence them.
"We will not rest until we get this right,” she said.
The Navy went from 1,696 in 2018 to 1,774 in 2019, and the Army showed the smallest increase, with a 2% bump from 3,155 in 2018 to 3,219 in 2019.
The report found that commanders took some kind of action on close to two-thirds of the cases.