WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday there has been "real progress" in the Pentagon's effort to combat sexual assault among the military, but he also said he was troubled that more than 60 percent of the women who filed reports said they faced retaliation.
Hagel unveiled new data that show the number of sexual assaults reported by service members rose by 8 percent this year. But it also included a new anonymous survey that showed victims are becoming more willing to come forward. In addition, the survey showed a decrease in the number of troops who said they were victims of unwanted sexual contact — declining from roughly 26,000 in 2012 to about 19,000 this year.
Hagel 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," said Hagel. He added that the retaliation issue is going to be a challenge.
"We must tackle this difficult problem head on," Hagel told Pentagon reporters. "When someone reports a sexual assault, they need to be embraced and helped, not ostracized or punished with retribution."
According to the new data, there were nearly 6,000 victims of reported assaults in 2014, compared with just over 5,500 last year. The Pentagon changed its method of accounting for the assaults this year, and now each victim counts for one report.
Using last year's accounting methods, there were roughly 5,400 sexual assaults reported as of the end of the 2014 fiscal year on Sept. 30, compared with a little more than 5,000 last year. That increase comes on the heels of an unprecedented 50 percent spike in reporting.
Based on those numbers, and the anonymous survey conducted by the Rand Corp., officials said that about 1 in every 4 victims filed a report this year, in sharp contrast to 2012, when only about 1 in every 10 military victims came forward.
Two years ago, the revelation that about 26,000 service members said they had been victims of unwanted sexual contact stunned officials and outraged lawmakers, triggering congressional hearings and legislative changes.
This year, that number is about 19,000 — about 10,500 men and 8,500 women. Officials said this suggests there is a trend of sexual assaults declining.
Officials said the decision to change the accounting system to have a report for every victim, rather than one report for an incident that could have multiple victims, would provide greater accuracy. Using that system, there were 3,604 victims in 2012, some 5,518 in 2013 and 5,983 in 2014.
The reports come as Congress continues to press for an overhaul of the military justice system to change the way that sexual assault cases are handled. Lawmakers complain that the Pentagon has not done enough to combat sexual assault across the military and make it easier and more acceptable for victims to report harassment and assaults.
Victims had complained that they were not comfortable going to commanders to report assaults, particularly in the stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and strength.
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.
Most of the reporting women said they felt social backlash from co-workers or other service members.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a leading advocate for improvements in protecting victims of sexual assault, pointed to the retaliation figures as troubling.
"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," she said. "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."
Under fire from Congress, Pentagon leaders and the White House, the military services have launched programs to encourage reporting, provide better care for victims, step up prosecutions and urge troops to intervene when they see others in threatening situations.
"Reporting of assaults being up and incidents of assault being down are exactly the combination we're looking for. I'm sure there's more work to do, and I'm anxious to hear how victims feel about the services and support offered to them when they report an assault," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Hagel ordered new initiatives to combat the retaliation problem, including an increase in training for junior officers and enlisted supervisors and new procedures requiring commanders to regularly assess retaliation issues.
According to the new data, an overwhelming majority of those who filled out the survey said they took action to prevent an assault when they saw a risky situation.
The services also created hotlines, plastering phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And they have expanded sexual assault prevention training, hired victims' advocates and response coordinators and tried to curtail drinking, which is often a factor in assaults.