WASHINGTON — Reports of sexual assaults across the U.S. military jumped by 13% last year, driven by significant increases in the Army and the Navy as bases began to move out of pandemic restrictions and public venues reopened, The Associated Press has learned.
Mirroring the increase in those reports is the disclosure that close to 36,000 service members said in a confidential survey that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic increase over the roughly 20,000 who said that in a similar 2018 survey, U.S. defense and military officials said.
The latest numbers are certain to anger lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have been critical of the Pentagon’s efforts to get a handle on sexual crimes and misconduct.
According to officials, the overall increase is largely fueled by a nearly 26% jump in reports involving Army soldiers. It’s the largest increase for that service since 2013, when such reports went up by 51%.
The increase in Navy reports was about 9%, the Air Force was a bit more than 2% and the Marine Corps was less than 2%, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the reporting has not yet been made public.
The big increase is especially troublesome for the Army, which is struggling to meet its recruiting goals and is expected to miss the target by at least 10,000 — or by anywhere from 18% to 25% — at the end of September. Army leaders have acknowledged that it is important for parents and others who influence recruits to feel comfortable that their son or daughter is safe and will be taken care of in the service.
Army officials said the numbers are alarming and that they certainly could have an impact on recruting, if parents believe their youth are at risk of assaults. They said Army leaders saw the growing numbers last year and began trying to implement new programs. Already, they said, some programs are working and the sexual harassment and assault numbers have been coming down this year.
COVID-19 and the pandemic restrictions make year-to-year comparisons complicated. Officials said they do not have enough data to determine if — or how much — the pandemic played a role in the higher reporting and survey numbers.
The Pentagon and the military services have long struggled to come up with programs to prevent sexual assaults and to encourage reporting. While the military has made inroads in making it easier and safer for service members to come forward, it has had far less success reducing the assaults, which have increased nearly every year since 2006.
Army leaders said they’ve seen some results with a training program that soldiers get when they report to their first duty station. It is rolled out right away, and has soldiers acting out dangerous situations and emphasizes training on how to respond. They also said they are improving evaluation programs that grade unit leaders, including randomly picking peers and others to do the assessments.
The double-digit overall increase comes after two years of relatively small increases in reports filed by or involving service members. In the budget year ending September 2020, reports of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact edged up by 1%, as much of the world largely shut down due to the pandemic. The previous year, reports went up by about 3% — a substantial improvement over 2018, which also saw a 13% increase.
The widespread restrictions on travel and movement for the military continued during fall 2020 and the early part of 2021, and many businesses, restaurants and bars were shut down or had limited service. Things began to open up as more people were vaccinated in the summer and fall, but it’s also not clear whether that greater freedom contributed to the increase in assault reports.
The Pentagon releases a report every year on the number of sexual assaults reported by or about troops. But because sexual assault is a highly underreported crime, the department began to do a confidential survey every two years to get a clearer picture of the problem. The 2018 survey found that more than 20,000 service members said they experienced some type of sexual assault, but only one-third of them filed a formal report.
The latest report, expected to be publicly released Thursday, estimates that about 35,800 service members experienced some type of sexual assault in the previous year, based on the confidential survey. That means that only about one in every five service members reported an incident that happened in the previous year.
Every year as many as 10% of the assaults that service members reported happened before they joined the military.
Officials familiar with the findings said survey respondents also reported increases in hostility in the workplace, as well as more sexual harassment, which can sometimes lead to other sexual assaults or misconduct. They said the survey revealed that about 8% of all women and 1.5% of men in the service said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact.
Officials said the survey suggested that, based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a woman’s chance of being sexually assaulted in the military was about the same as a woman in the general population. But for men, the risk for those in the military is much lower than in U.S. society.
Defense officials have argued that an increase in reported assaults is a positive trend because so many people are reluctant to report it, both in the military and in society as a whole. Greater reporting, they say, shows there is more confidence in the reporting system and greater comfort with the support for victims.
It’s unclear, however, whether the increased reports last year actually represent a growing problem or whether those who say they were assaulted were just more willing to come forward.
The Pentagon has been under persistent pressure from Congress to improve prevention and prosecutions. Lawmakers acted late last year to take some prosecution authority out of the hands of commanders and instead use independent prosecutors.
Victims rights advocates and others have argued that service members don’t trust the system and are often unwilling to go to their commanders with a complaint for fear of retribution. They also worry that commanders may not press ahead with some cases if they know the accused. Members of Congress argued that using independent prosecutors would make the process more fair, and make victims more comfortable coming forward.