How’s this for counterintuitive? Pentagon hails jump in reported sexual assault cases

05/01/2014 4:03 PM

05/01/2014 4:18 PM

WASHINGTON The number of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. armed forces jumped by 50 percent last year, with almost three-quarters of the cases prompting military prosecutions.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the figures, contained in a 2013 annual report on sexual assault he released Thursday, show that victims have more faith in the system thanks to protections he’s implemented.

“Sexual assault is a clear threat to the lives and well-being of the women and men who serve our country in uniform,” Hagel told reporters at the White House.

There were 5,061 claims of military sexual assault last year, up from 3,374 in 2012. A decade ago, by contrast, there were fewer than 1,700 such claims.

Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser in the Pentagon’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, said the spike in cases does not reflect more actual instances of assault, but rather entirely greater reporting of such alleged crimes.

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group based in Burlingame, Calif., cast doubt on the Pentagon’s assertion that the number of assaults did not increase least year.

“Until the release of DOD’s biannual survey later this year, we will not know the reason for this increase (in reported assaults) -- which could be due to more troops being attacked or (be) a result of the intense public attention to this issue,” said Nancy Parrish, head of the group.

“The DOD has released no evidence to prove its claim that victims have more trust in the existing military justice system or the treatment they have received,” Parrish said.

In a surprising statement, Hagel cited “estimates that men comprise more than half the victims of sexual assault in the military.”

That claim is at odds with a 2012 Pentagon anonymous survey in which 6 percent of women in uniform said they’d experienced some form of “unwanted sexual contact” compared with 1.2 percent of men in uniform.

In actual cases that are prosecuted, the vast majority of victims are women.

Hagel said a far fewer share of male victims than female victims report such attacks. He issued a directive Wednesday aimed at persuading more men in uniform who feel they’ve been a target of sexual assault to inform their commanders of the alleged crimes.

“We have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting (of attacks) and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak, but rather because an offender disregards our values and the law,” Hagel said.

Hagel issued other directives requiring evaluation of commanders’ training on sexual assault, a review of alcohol policies in the military and sustaining a broader military culture in which predatory sexual advances are not tolerated.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said the increased number of sexual-assault victims stepping forward is partially the result of reforms she crafted that became part of last year’s annual defense authorization bill.

“These numbers show concrete progress as our recent sweeping reforms continue to take root and more victims have the confidence in the system to come out of the shadows and report these crimes,” McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, said in a statement.

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