Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military had made "real progress" in curbing military sexual assault, but concluded, "We still have a long way to go."
The Defense Department released the results of a yearlong study on the depth of the problem in the armed forces. President Obama gave a one-year deadline to conclude the report last December and plans to use it to assess whether further reforms are needed to the military justice system.
The study shows that reported sexual assaults are up eight percent from last year, a sign the Pentagon has heralded as evidence that more and more troops trust the military justice system. They also estimate the percentage of service members who report unwanted sexual contact has risen to 24 percent, or one in every four victims, up from just one in 10 victims in 2012. There is still a significant gender disparity, though, with an estimated 40 percent of female victims reporting assaults and just 10 percent of men.
In total, the study found that 6,000 cases of assault were reported in 2014, and an estimated 19,000 men and women in the military experienced unwanted sexual contact occurred. That is a decline of between 6,000 and 7,000 assaults from the numbers reported in 2012, the Pentagon said.
"Sexual assault threatens the lives and well-being of both the women and the men who serve our country in uniform. It destroys the bonds of trust and confidence which is at the heart of our military. Eradicating sexual assault from our ranks is not only essential to the long-term health and readiness of the force, it is also about honoring our highest commitments to protect our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines," Hagel said.
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Though he said that there was improvement in 10 of 12 specific measures used to judge progress, including reduced prevalence and increased reporting, there is still much work to be done.
One of those areas, Hagel said, is retaliation. In 2014, the survey found that over 60 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some kind of retaliation, often socially, by their co-workers or peers.
"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. "When someone reports a sexual assault, they need to be embraced and helped, not ostracized or punished with retribution."
He said he was issuing four new directives to help address the problem, including developing new procedures to engage commanders to prevent professional and social retaliation and revamping training for junior officers, junior enlisted supervisors, and civilian supervisors so they will be better able to respond to and prevent a sexual assault and reduce the potential for retaliation.
Other areas for improvement, he said, include fighting cultural stigmas that discourage reporting among men, and address assaults that are disguised as hazing or practical jokes.
For those in Congress who want to see further reforms, the report did not show enough progress.
"We've seen zero improvement on retaliation, and victims still don't feel comfortable coming forward and having a case be investigated and go to trial. I think this report shows a failure in leadership, a failure by the chain of command, and so what we need is objective, trained prosecutors being able to take these cases, we need them to be able to prosecute these cases based on the evidence and we need to be able to remove that decision making from the chain of command," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. She is trying to revive her legislation to take sexual assault prosecutions from military commanders and the chain of command and hand them over to trained military lawyers. Last spring, the legislation was just five votes shy of the necessary 60 for passage.
"If any senator, or congress member, if their daughter was in the military, if they had to accept this lack of justice for their son or daughter they would never accept it," Gillibrand added. "We should not be asking this of the men and women who serve in our military."
But for those who helped develop the less aggressive set of reforms adopted by Congress over the last year, like Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, the report was "mostly good news."
She said the study showed improvements in the system but agreed with Gillibrand that the instances of retaliation were still too high.