WASHINGTON — The prevalence of sexual assault in the U.S. military is declining, according to the Pentagon's most recent report to Congress, but retaliation and ostracism remain significant problems among the victims who formally report such crimes.
   
Published Monday, the findings indicate an estimated 14,900 service members surveyed last year experienced a sex assault, down from 20,300 when the last comprehensive canvass was conducted in 2014. The military services received reports of sexual assault involving 6,172 servicewomen and men in 2016, either as victims or subjects of criminal investigation, a number that's remained consistent for the last three years. The preponderance — 5,350 — were submitted by victims and, of those, about 10 percent made a report for incidents occurring before they entered the military.

Yet while a greater percentage of victims are reporting crimes, nearly 6 in 10 say they've experienced some sort of negative reaction as a consequence for coming forward, officials acknowledge. It underscores the challenges military leaders continue to face even as their prevention and support efforts show demonstrable signs of progress.

"That's way too many people having to experience this stuff, but this is how change works," said a senior Pentagon official, who spoke to select media outlets on the condition of anonymity in advance of the report's release.

READ THE REPORT: Sex Assault in the Military 2016

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman John McCain and Ranking Member Jack Reed, issued a statement Monday evening saying "we are encouraged" by the report's findings. At the same time, while "these trends point toward a positive improvement ..., there is still much work to be done," it says.

Separately, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, a House Armed Services Committee member who co-chairs the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, indicated she'll introduce bipartisan legislation aimed in part at expanding training focused specifically on male sexual assault. More than 6,000 military men surveyed last last year said they experienced some form of unwanted contact, mostly via behavior they considered hazing, the Pentagon says.

It's been 13 years since the Defense Department established a data-driven agency exclusively focused on sex-assault prevention. In that time, overall prevalence estimates have fluctuated. 

For instance, a decade ago, officials deduced that about 7 percent of military women and 2 percent of men experienced some sort of "unwanted sexual contact" — more than 34,000 total. Today, the Pentagon believes sex assault occurs to 4.3 percent of women and 0.6 percent of men, according to its latest report, yet those rates have sunken and swelled depending on the year. The current trajectory is downward.

And "retaliation is on everyone's mind," the defense official said, calling it a complicated facet of the military's broader challenge. The latest survey indicates 58 percent of service members who formally reported a sex assault also indicated they experienced negative consequences, the official said.

Sex assault victims, the official noted, may experience heightened sensitivity to changes in others' behavior, but there's a difference between being intimidated versus feeling ostracized. The official likened this dynamic to co-workers' reactions when one of their colleagues experiences a death in the family: Some are outwardly sympathetic and supportive, while others avoid interaction entirely.

"So when people quit talking to them, they wonder why that is," the official said. "It's probably human nature, but sometimes it could be because someone says: 'I don't like you. You dimed out my buddy. Now I'm not talking to you, and I don't think you should be in the military.' "

And while the number of formal reports has mostly leveled off since 2014, officials say their survey data indicates a greater percentage of victims feel comfortable coming forward. About 1 in 3 service members who experienced a sexual assault ultimately filed a report in 2016, the Pentagon says. That's up from 1 in 14 a decade ago.

"Even though the raw numbers might stay the same, if we get a growing proportion every year, we see that being progress," the official said. "We'll probably never have 1-to-1 reporting, but I think we can bring more folks in."

The report's release comes as senior leaders contend with fallout from a military-wide scandal in which male service members distributed nude photos of female colleagues as part of a perverse social media network whose members, in some cases, promoted sexual violence. The episode has proven deeply embarrassing for the Defense Department, a proud institution that, like many college campuses around the country, have struggled to curtail problems with sexual assault, harassment and retaliation.

Other significant findings from the report:

  • The percentage of incidents where alcohol was involved continues to rise — nearly doubling over the last 10 years, according to women who were surveyed. In 2006, 32 percent of women indicated their assault involved alcohol and/or drug use by them or the alleged offender. In 2016, 60 percent of women reported this was the case.

  • For the first time, the survey included responses from service members who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender. That demographic comprised 5 percent of all respondents. Their estimated prevalence rate for sexual assault is 4.5 percent, compared to 0.8 percent for those who do not identify as LGBT.

  • Military commanders used the court-martial process to take action in 1,331 cases. Of the 791 cases that were taken to court-martial on sexual assault charges, 261 resulted in convictions. 

  • Special victims counsel and victim advocates were the most-used support services, with the highest satisfaction ratings, but men weren't as satisfied overall as women with the support they received.
  • Of those who experienced ostracism or maltreatment after reporting an incident, 29 percent indicated the treatment they perceived involved some form of social media.

Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter

Karen Jowers is a senior staff writer covering military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.