Military sex assault reports rise, even as Army numbers fall

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of reported sexual assaults across the military inched up by about 1% last year, as a sharp decline in Army numbers offset large increases in the other three services, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday.

The small overall uptick is significantly less than the 13% jump the Defense Department saw in 2021, but it's overshadowed by the fact the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps all had more reports last year than the previous year.

Because the Army is much larger than the other three services, its 9% drop in reported sexual assaults last year drove the overall military increase down. That large decrease comes a year after Army leaders saw a nearly 26% jump in reports involving soldiers — the largest increase for that service since 2013.

The Air Force saw the largest increase in reported assaults during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, at 13%, while the Navy had a 9% jump and the Marine Corps went up by about 4%.

Overall, there were more than 8,942 reports of sexual assaults involving service members during the 2022 fiscal year, a slight increase over the 8,866 the year before.

The Pentagon and the military services have come under increasing criticism and pressure from members of Congress to reduce sexual assaults and harassment in the military. The services have long struggled to come up with programs to prevent sexual assaults and to encourage reporting, including a number of new initiatives over the past year.

Defense officials have long argued that an increase in reported assaults is a positive trend because so many people are reluctant to report them, both in the military and in society as a whole. Greater reporting, they say, shows there is more confidence in the reporting system, greater comfort with the support for victims, and a growing number of offenders who are being held accountable.

Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office, said the department is using a budget infusion of $479 million this year to hire as many as 2,400 personnel for a new “prevention workforce.” He said about 350 have already been hired and as the number grows they will be placed in military installations around the world to help commanders address some of the risk factors that lead to sexual assault.

“This is the first time in the 15 years that I’ve been working this issue for the Department of Defense that I have a fully funded and fully staffed way forward,” he told The Associated Press. “I think this is the thing that’s going to allow us to really address this. Everybody needs to hold us accountable. They need to watch this space, and we will make good on our promise to address this.”

It’s unclear whether the latest increase in reports represents a growing problem or whether those who say they were assaulted were just more willing to come forward.

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. And Army leaders, as an example, have acknowledged that issues such as sexual assaults, suicides and other problems have an impact on recruiting. All of the services have been struggling to meet recruiting goals.

Asked about the latest report, Heather Hagan, an Army spokeswoman, said Thursday that “while encouraging, we know the Army has much more work to do to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

Army officials were alarmed as they saw the growing numbers last year and began trying to implement new programs, and by late fall they said that some changes were starting to work.

They said one change involved a training program that soldiers get when they report to their first duty station. It is rolled out right away, and it has soldiers acting out dangerous situations and emphasizes training on how to respond.

The Army officials also said they were beefing up evaluation programs that grade unit leaders, including randomly picking peers and others to do the assessments.

Galbreath said the rate of sexual assault in the military is about the same as that of the civilian population. But he acknowledged that, “everyone expects more from the military — that when they send their son or daughter off to serve their nation, we have an environment that allows dignity and respect, and everyone has a chance to serve without fear of having to experience a sexual assault.”

Galbreath also noted that in December the military will begin using independent attorneys to review and prosecute sexual assault cases, rather than unit commanders. That change was forced by members of Congress who believed that some commanders were biased or were opting not to prosecute or punish their troops, and as a result victims were reluctant to come forward.

According to the Pentagon report, the number of Air Force sexual assault reports increased from 1,701 in 2021 to 1,928 last year, while the Navy went from 1,883 to 2,052, the Marine Corps went from 1,201 to 1,244 and the Army decreased from 4,081 to 3,718.

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 also does a confidential survey every two years to get a clearer picture of the problem. The most recent survey was released last year, so it won't come out again until next year.