Reports of sexual assault in the military increased 3% in 2019, continuing a disturbing trend despite Pentagon efforts to combat the problem, the Defense Department reported Thursday.
The annual survey compared reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2019, which ended last September, with the same period in 2018. There were 6,236 reports in 2019 compared with 6,053 in 2018.
The Pentagon said it does not consider the 3% increase in reports to be the most reliable indicator of the problem in the military because sexual assault is an under-reported crime.
Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the 3% increase indicated that efforts to eradicate sexual assault were paying off.
The more comprehensive survey on sexual assault was released last year. That report, usually done every other year, is based on detailed surveys of troops. It found a 38% increase in assaults from 2016 to 2018 and came after years of focused effort and resources to eradicate it.
Nonetheless, Thursday’s news of an increase in reports shows sexual violence continues to be a major problem for the Pentagon.
“Our work to eliminate sexual assault reflects our ongoing commitment to advance a culture of trust, respect, and inclusion within the force.” Elizabeth Van Winkle, the Pentagon’s executive director for force resiliency, said in a statement. “We are acutely aware of the high cost of not succeeding, not only for the readiness of our country’s defense, but for the individual Americans who step forward and volunteer to serve our nation.”
The 2019 report surveyed Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel. That survey found an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact – an increase over the 14,900 estimated in the last major survey in 2016. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.
Enlisted female troops ages 17 to 24 were at the highest risk of being assaulted. More than 85% of victims knew their assailant. Alcohol was involved in 62% of the total assaults.
“One of our prevention efforts over the past year focused on preparing leaders at all levels to better reach our youngest service members who are most at risk,” Galbreath said in a statement. “Helping our newest enlisted leaders and supervisors create healthy unit climates will benefit our military and all those who serve.”
The situation was even worse at the nation’s premier military educational institutions. Sexual assault at military academies rose 50%, according to another report released last year. Reports of unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 in the 2017-18 academic year, compared with 507 in 2015-16, according to anonymous surveys of cadets and midshipmen.
Senior Pentagon officials vowed changes to combat sexual assault: seeking a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment, developing new measurements to gauge the problem, launching a program to catch serial offenders, improving assessments of the character of military applicants, training for junior officers and junior enlisted leaders and focusing on prevention.
One program initiated in 2019 seeks to catch serial offenders by tracking confidential information provided by victims. There have been 239 reports to the program that have matched five different offenders who may have assaulted multiple victims, Galbreath said.
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