WASHINGTON (AP) — New sexual assault data on Thursday delivered both good news and bad news for a U.S. military struggling to overcome what officials have condemned as a serious problem. The number of assault reports filed by military members went up 8 percent, but an anonymous survey showed that fewer troops experienced unwanted sexual contact.
Despite the improvement in some numbers, the survey also revealed that more than 60 percent of the women who said they filed sexual assault complaints said they faced retaliation.
Q: What's the bottom line?
A: According to the new Pentagon data, there were nearly 6,000 victims of reported assaults in 2014, compared with just over 5,500 last year, or an increase of about 8 percent. The Pentagon changed its method of accounting for the assaults this year, and now each victim counts for one report.
An anonymous survey showed that 19,000 service members said they were victims of unwanted sexual contact, down from 26,000 in 2012.
Q: How accurate are those survey numbers?
A: The Rand Corp. conducted two main surveys. One was identical to the one the Pentagon sent out two years ago, in order to get comparable data. The other was more detailed and included far more explicit questions.
Altogether, about 560,000 surveys were sent and roughly 145,000 service members responded.
About 29,000 troops responded to the survey that was identical to the 2012 Pentagon questionnaire. Officials took those results, and using statistical extrapolations concluded with 95 percent certainty that between 16,000 and 22,000 people had experienced unwanted sexual contact, and the "best estimate" was 19,000.
Q: How can an increase in reports be a good thing?
A: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the increase "progress." Pentagon leaders argue that the higher number doesn't indicate more crimes. Instead, they say data show that actual assaults are going down but more troops are becoming willing to come forward and report them.
According to the data, about one in four victims came forward this year, compared to about one in 10 in 2012. That's because sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime, both across society and in the military. And in the military, where loyalty, rank and toughness are stressed and valued, there may be a greater reluctance to report sexual assaults, harassment or any unwanted sexual contact.
To deal with that, the Pentagon has launched dozens of new programs and initiatives to encourage reporting, provide better care for victims, step up prosecutions and urge troops to intervene when they see others in threatening situations.
Q: What's one of the big challenges ahead?
A: Retaliation is a glaring area where there has been little progress.
According to the survey, 62 percent of the women who said they filed sexual assault reports also said they faced some type of social or professional retaliation from co-workers or peers. It was the same percentage two years ago.
Retaliation numbers were available only for women, because there wasn't enough data on male victims. Men are much less willing to report sexual assault than women.
"We have to get at this, have to do better if our progress is to continue," said Rear Admiral Rick Snyder, who leads the Navy's sexual assault prevention and response effort. "Anything that creates a barrier to reporting or victim recovery is completely counterproductive to our efforts as an organization and must be corrected."
Q: What are the differences between men and women in reporting?
A: According to the Pentagon survey, 10,500 men and 8,500 women said they experienced unwanted sexual contact. That amounts to nearly 1 percent of the men and 4.3 percent of the women. That represents a slight decrease from 2012, when 6.1 percent of the women and 1.2 percent of the men said they experienced unwanted sexual contact.
Of the 5,983 victims who filed reports of sexual abuse this year, 4,595 were active duty service members at the time of the assault. Others reported incidents that happened prior to joining the military. Of those 4,595: 1,013 were men and 3,582 were women.
Q: What were the crimes?
A: Some victims choose to file restricted reports, which means they are seeking help, but don't want to file a criminal complaint. Of the 5,983 reports filed, 4,501 were unrestricted. Nearly 40 percent were for abusive sexual contact, 20 percent were for rape, 21 percent for sexual assault.
Q: How many are prosecuted?
A: About 3,500 investigations were launched in 2014. In the vast majority of the cases, the alleged subject was a male, between the ages of 20-34 and holding a lower enlisted rank. The victims were largely female, between 16 and 24 years old and also of a lower enlisted rank.
Since it often takes months to complete an investigation, some that were started in 2013 were finished this year. So, of those investigations finished in 2014, the military could not take action against about 1,100 because the charges were unfounded, the subjects were outside the department's legal authority, or other issues..
Some 2,419 service members were investigated. Of those, 910 faced court-martial, 283 received non-judicial punishment; 85 received administrative discharges and 102 received some other administrative action for sex assault charges. In 384 instances, other misconduct charges were lodged.
Q: What is the reaction to the latest numbers?
A: Congressional reaction has been mixed., with lawmakers pointing to the retaliation problems and the fact that 19,000 estimated victims of sexual abuse is still way too high. And while it's lower than two years ago, it is equal to the total in 2010.
"For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous defense bill were going to protect victims and make retaliation a crime," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62 percent of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against — nearly two-thirds — the exact same number as last year."
Others, including Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, pushed for greater accountability in the military justice system, including new legislation to place more requirements on commanders to be assessed on their handling of cases.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, who also has worked on military sexual assault reforms, said there is room for a bit of optimism in the latest numbers. Pointing to the report of more women coming forward, she said, "This is a remarkable change in terms of victims being willing to talk to people in the military about what happened to them."
Hagel, meanwhile, said the increase in reporting is good news, but he added that the military still has "a long way to go."
"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," he said.