The Pentagon saw a 10 percent increase in the number of sexual assaults reported last year but still thinks that the number of people in the U.S. military who experience the crime is declining, based on surveys they’ve conducted, Defense Department officials said Monday.
There were a total of 6,769 sexual assaults reported in the U.S. military in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Pentagon said in a new report. That total includes 4,193 involving female service members and 1,084 involving male service members, with others involving victims who were not in the military.
The number of female service members reporting sexual assault jumped 13 percent, the Pentagon said. The number of men reporting remained flat.
“While the progress we have seen provides some comfort, we neither take it for granted nor are we under any illusions that our work is done,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, principal director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency. “In fact, we see this progress as cautionary and recognize that one of the greatest threats to progress is complacency.”
The Pentagon bases its belief that occurrences of sexual assault in the military are falling on a biennial survey of service members. The most recent survey found that about 14,900 people in the military were assaulted in 2016, down from 26,000 in 2012 and 34,200 in 2006. The next prevalence survey will be carried out this year.
The number of reports documented is complicated by the way the Pentagon tracks them. Ten percent of the incidents occurred before a service member joined the military but were included in the numbers because they were reported while victims were in uniform.
The Pentagon also reported 4,779 cases that reached a conclusion last year in the report, some of which dated back several years. Of those, 3,567 involved service members who were investigated, and 2,218 of those resulted in commanders taking some form of disciplinary action.
But the percentage of cases that the U.S. military prosecuted criminally declined. In fiscal 2013, the Pentagon reported that 71 percent of cases resulted in criminal charges being referred to courts-martial. That number fell to 64 percent in fiscal 2014 and 2015, dropped to 59 percent in 2016 and declined to 54 percent last year.
Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said Monday that there is “no right number” when it comes to sexual assault prosecutions. The Pentagon setting one, he said, would raise the possibility of unlawful command influence, a legal term in military justice in which senior officials compromise the fair prosecution of cases by getting involved.