Reports of sexual assaults in the military increased by an unprecedented 46 percent during the last fiscal year, the Pentagon said Thursday.
It wasn't possible to know if the spike represented an increase in assaults, an increase in reporting them or both. Defense Department officials portrayed the sharp increase as a sign that people are more confident about coming forward now that improvements are being made to the military's system for handling assaults.
There were 3,553 sexual-assault complaints from October 2012 through June 2013, compared with 2,434 reports during the same period a year earlier, according to statistics presented Thursday at the start of a two-day public meeting of the Response Systems Panel, which is looking into the issue.
The presentation to the independent panel said an increase in reports was registered across all service branches — the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy. And it noted that although statistics for the full fiscal year are not yet available, there were more reports of sexual assault in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013 than the 3,374 reported during the entire 2012 fiscal year.
"A change in reports of sexual assault may reflect a change in victim confidence in Department of Defense response systems," said a 14-page slide presentation for the panel.
Activists against military sexual assault questioned the validity of the military's hypothesis.
"It is unclear whether these numbers represent an increase in crime or reporting. But one thing we do know is that 62 percent of those that do report stated that they were retaliated against, and 25 percent of victims indicated that the offender was someone in their chain of command,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect of Defenders, a national advocacy organization, said in a statement.
Despite official data reported annually on sexual assaults, the Pentagon acknowledges that the actual number of assaults could be several times higher and that many assaults go uncounted because of reluctance in the military to report such crimes.
A Defense Department study released in May estimated that across all military branches, 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. At the same time, only 2,949 sexual assaults were officially reported. Service Women Action Network, an advocacy organization against sexual military assault, found that nearly 1 in 3 people convicted of sexual assault remains in the military.
The new data and Thursday's public meeting come just weeks before the Senate is expected to take up a proposal to change how the military justice system deals with sexual assaults. The legislation would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial, and it would give that authority to seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or higher.
The chief advocate of the change, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is expected to push to attach her measure as an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that the Senate is expected to consider the week of Nov. 18.
On Wednesday, Gillibrand was joined at an emotional news conference by a victim of assault, retired military members, victims' advocates and a bipartisan group of senators who back her legislation. Forty-six senators — 38 Democrats and eight Republicans — support the proposal.
But her idea is opposed by the Pentagon and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., as well as by female committee member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Levin agrees with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that commanders should remain involved in deciding whether to prosecute sexual-assault cases. Military leaders have argued that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline in their units.
Earlier this year, the Armed Services Committee backed a bill designed to reform the military system by requiring a review of commander decisions not to prosecute sexual-assault cases. The proposal also would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and called on the Pentagon to relieve commanders who failed to create a receptive climate for victims.
McCaskill said the data reported by the Pentagon on Thursday shows a system that includes a role for commanders and holds them accountable with reforms can work for victims.
"These numbers, while a comfort to no one, represent progress and hopefully show that with new protections in place and historic reforms on the way, victims will have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders," McCaskill said in a statement.
"We know that the majority of military sexual-assault survivors choose not to report their assaults, but this data suggests that the number of brave men and women choosing to pursue justice is increasing."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press