Thursday’s Department of Defense report that sexual assaults have soared by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013 has caused mixed feelings among victims of sexual crimes and people who advocate for those victims.
Although claims are up, the Pentagon said that the figure is good news, because it means more military personnel are reporting sexual assaults, more victims are seeking help, and more armed services members are assisting in the prosecution of offenders than ever before.
"There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime," said Major General Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention and response office. "We assess that this unprecedented increase is consistent with a growing confidence in the response systems."
The Department of Defense received 5,061 reports of sexual assault, but nearly one-third, or 1,293, of those reports were instances where the victim only sought medical attention and decided not to disclose the identity of their attacker or attackers or assist investigators.
While commanding officers attempted to initiate 838 courts-martial, according to the new report, only 484 were actually held, and of that number, only 370 resulted in some kind of charge. Of those charged, 197 will be required to register as a sex offender.
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In 223 instances, a court-martial was not convened either because charges were dismissed or because the service member was dismissed in lieu of facing a military judge.
Advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network welcomed the Pentagon’s aggressive approach to tackling the issue and the increased political pressure, but it warned against complacency.
"Reporting is up, but sexual violence is still deeply entrenched in military culture,” said Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network executive director and a former Marine Corps captain. “We need the structural changes that would be created by [Democratic New York] Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act to ensure that when this intense political pressure begins to fade, justice will be done."
While reporting has increased, even top officials admit that only a small fraction of those cases have led to courts-martial.
“We have a long way to go before we get close to solving this problem,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday as the 2013 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military was released.
However, Sen. Gillibrand, chair of the Senate armed forces subcommittee on personnel, remained skeptical about the Pentagon’s response and said the increase should "send a chill down people's spines.”
“A system where only one out of 10 reported cases proceed to trial for a survivor to have a fair shot at receiving justice is simply not working,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “Using last year’s baseline of an estimated 26,000 total cases of unwanted sexual contact, we have a system where eight out of 10 victims of sexual assault still do not trust the chain of command enough to report the crime committed against them. That is a system screaming for additional reform."
This is unlikely to surprise victims of sexual crime in the military. A recurring theme reported among many victims was the difficulty they felt in approaching commanding officers, often out of fear of reprisal. For example, when former U.S. Marine Sarah Plummer attempted to report a rape to her commanding officer while in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, she instead broke down in tears, only telling the officer that she didn’t think she could be a Marine.
“It was like being raped by my brother and trying to report it to my father,” said Plummer, who spoke with Katie Couric on "Katie" 10 years after the incident. “Finding those words to say that to someone who’s like a father to you was nearly impossible.”
"I knew the military was notorious for mishandling rape cases, so I didn't dare think anything good would come of reporting the rape," Plummer said at a press conference with Sen. Gillibrand in November 2013.