The number of sexual assaults reported within the Navy has grown by about 50 percent in the past year, which Navy officials said Wednesday is a sign that a growing number of sailors feel more comfortable reporting an assault and believe something will be done about it -- a prior source of concern for victims, advocates say.
The Navy said it is on track to end the 2013 fiscal year later this month with about 1,100 reports of sexual assault. A total of 726 were reported in the previous fiscal year.
Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the Navy's top sexual assault prevention and response officer, told reporters at an annual training conference that the increase was something Navy officials had expected as they ramped up efforts to let sailors know that sexual assaults are being treated seriously.
However, Brian Purchia, spokesman for Protect Our Defenders (POD), an organization that provides support to military sexual assault survivors, was skeptical about the significance of the Navy’s numbers. The reports go against a trend of endemic, unreported sexual assault in the military.
"We have no idea how these cases are being reported. Ultimately the commander still has the right to dismiss the charge or not even investigate," he told Al Jazeera, saying there is a need for "an independent justice system" that would remove the authority to prosecute alleged perpetrators from the victim’s chain of command.
A Defense Department report released in May estimated that across all military branches, 26,000 service members had been sexually assaulted in the previous year. At the same time, only 2,949 sexual assaults were officially reported, apparently indicating a fear of retaliation.
In May, Gillibrand introduced legislation, the 2013 Military Justice Improvement Act, to remove decision-making power on cases of sexual assault out of the victim's chain of command -- a bipartisan effort some experts say would dramatically increase the number of reported incidents, which now stand at only 14 percent, according to the Department of Defense.
A string of high-profile sexual assault cases involving the military this year helped spur a renewed call to action in Washington to combat sexual assaults.
In August, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced new measures to curb sexual assault in the military, including providing legal representation for victims and giving commanders the option to transfer alleged perpetrators away from their victims.
"What we're trying to do is close that gap between anonymous surveys where sailors say that they've been victims of sexual assault in their past to those sailors that actually come forward to report," Buck said.
But victims’ advocates have said the measures aren’t sufficient to fundamentally change the problem.
"While we support efforts that attack the status quo, these changes are mostly small tweaks to a broken system," POD said.
Lisa De Bode contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera and wire services.