The estimated number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military dropped in 2014 but the number of rapes and violent sexual assaults is significantly higher than previously thought, according to new data released by the Defense Department and the Rand Corp.

Preliminary findings of an extensive survey of 170,000 troops released Thursday revealed that 20,000 service members said they had experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual contact in the past year, representing nearly 5 percent of all active-duty women and 1 percent of active-duty men.

The figures are down from the estimated 26,000 in fiscal 2012, the last year a complete survey was conducted, a drop of more than 23 percent.

But new survey methodology used by the Rand Corp. found that many of the 20,000 assaults in 2014 were not "unwanted sexual contact" — a phrase the Pentagon uses to describe any incident of unsolicited and unwanted sexual behavior — they were violent, probing acts.

Nearly half the assaults reported by women and 35 percent reported by men were "penetrative sexual assaults" — crimes that include rape and penetration with an object.

Using the methodology DoD previously used for surveys, just 29 percent of assaults against women and 11 percent against men in 2014 would have been classified as penetrative sexual assaults.

The Rand survey generated some controversy earlier this year when some service members complained to the Associated Press about its explicit language and graphic questions on sexual activity.

But the Pentagon said the survey, which previously had been conducted by DoD but was contracted to Rand this year to improve reporting and ensure objectivity, was more detailed in order to get more accurate results.

Rand analysts said the higher number of penetrative assaults found in their data may be attributable to troops reporting incidents of assault that the DoD's methods would have omitted or not counted as sexual, such as hazing.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday released results of a report on sexual assault prepared for President Obama that showed sexual assault reports from active-duty service members rose to 5,983, up 8 percent from 2013. But the number still represents fewer than a third of the total estimated assaults.

The number of unrestricted reports — on incidents that allow prosecution and courts-martial to proceed — increased as well but by a smaller margin, 6.5 percent.

Pentagon officials said the increased reports and decrease in number of assaults estimated by the Rand survey show progress is being made in efforts to combat the problem in the ranks.

"The [reporting] rate has continued to go up. That's actually good news. Two years ago, we reported that one in eight sexual assaults was reported, today that's one in four," Hagel said during a press conference on the report on Thursday.

At the same time, he said there is "much work to do," and he outlined steps the department will take to further reduce incidents.

The Pentagon continues to face pressure from Congress on the issue, with new measures included in the forthcoming fiscal 2015 defense bill that protect victims of sexual assault, allowing them to provide input on how their case should be tried and challenge any discharge or separation from service that may follow an incident of sexual assault, among other protections.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and a bipartisan group of senators on Monday renewed their call to overhaul the military justice system by removing the authority given to a small number of commanding officers to decide whether cases should proceed to courts-martial.

Gillibrand pressed for her legislation to be included in the defense bill as an amendment but said she would propose it for a stand-alone vote and continue pushing Obama for an executive action on the matter.

A breakdown of the newly released data for 2014:

  • DoD received 5,983 reports of sexual assault, with 4,501 being unrestricted. Less than a third, or 1,482, were "restricted" reports, meaning the victim sought only medical attention and did not want to participate in any investigation and prosecution (although a review of the military services' reports found 5,982 total reports).
  • Of the 2,419 cases in which military commanders had a suspect, legal jurisdiction and a victim willing to assist in an investigation, commanders found sufficient evidence to take disciplinary action in about 1,764 cases, including 1,380 for sexual assault and 384 for misconduct other than sexual assault.
  • Of the 1,380 cases that resulted in disciplinary action for sexual assault-related misconduct, 910 went to court-martial, 283 received nonjudicial punishment and 187 were discharged for other reasons.

The Pentagon altered its method of accounting for the assaults this year, a move some lawmakers have criticized for obscuring whether real change is occurring.

But the Rand report noted estimates using the standard DoD methods as well as the new format and found that under the traditional method, the fiscal 2014 estimates for assault would have been 19,000.

The new method indicated 20,000 troops experienced sexual assault, although the numbers still are not concrete because sexual assault is an under-reported crime.

According to Hagel's memo to service chiefs, changes will be made in training, education and at installations to improve sexual assault reporting and protect victims including:

  • A long-term effort at each installation to customize sexual assault programs to their circumstances and implement them.
  • New programs to increase unit leaders' knowledge and understanding of sexual assault programs to improve their ability to communicate the importance of prevention and response and mitigate retaliation against victims.
  • Further enforcement procedures to ensure that victims, witnesses or those who respond to an incident do no feel any consequences, reprisals or retaliation for reporting a sexual assault.

The new initiatives on curbing retaliation are aimed at addressing a long-standing problem in the Defense Department — that victims often are blamed for reporting crimes, shunned by colleagues, challenged professionally or depicted as having a mental health disorder and discharged.

The Rand survey found that 62 percent of women who experienced a sexual assault and reported it endured some type of retribution or retaliation — roughly the same number as was reported in 2013.

Social retaliation accounted for the largest form of perceived retribution, but 32 percent said they faced professional retaliation and 35 percent experienced an adverse administrative event after reporting an incident.

"We must tackle this difficult problem head on, because, like sexual assault itself, reprisal directly contradicts one of the highest values our military that we protect our brothers and our sisters in uniform," Hagel said.

Anu Bhagwati, a Marine Corps veteran and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, said the retaliation issue must be addressed to improve reporting and ensure that victims feel supported and secure.

"We've seen number of assaults increase and decrease over time — a little bump here, a little drop there — but the retaliation is a clear indication that the climate still isn't safe for victims," Bhagwati said. "Retaliation is a crime under the UCMJ. What's being done with these people? Are they being punished?"

According to the Rand survey, the Air Force and Coast Guard had the lowest percentages of reported sexual assaults in 2014 and the Navy and Marine Corps had the highest.

The Marine Corps reported the highest percentage of sexual assaults against women, with 7.9 percent reporting having endured an assault, while the Navy had the highest for men, 1.5 percent.

The percent of troops reporting a sexual assault in the other services among women were 4.7 percent of Army soldiers, 6.5 percent of Navy sailors, 2.9 percent of Air Force airmen and 3.0 percent of Coast Guardsmen.

The percentage of male troops reporting a sexual assault were 1 percent of soldiers, 0.3 percent of airmen, 1.1 percent of Marines and 0.3 percent of Coast Guardsmen.

The Rand survey further estimated that 26 percent of active-duty women and 7 percent of active-duty men experienced sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

A complete report on the Rand survey, including information on sexual assault in the National Guard, is expected next year.

About 800 fewer airmen experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in 2014 as compared to 2012, said Maj. Gen. Gina Grosso, who heads the Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response office at the Pentagon. For women, the prevalence of the crime dropped about 25 percent over that time period; for men, it dropped 14 percent.

Meanwhile, there was an overall 61 percent increase in reporting by airmen, Grosso said. About one out of every four men in the Air Force who experienced a sexual offense came forward; about three out of every five women reported the crime, according to the 2014 data.

"As encouraged as we are by these facts — that we are reaching a greater percentage of victims — we know each sexual assault is a critical event in the life of our airmen. We still have much work to do," Grosso said.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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