Updated: May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that sexual assaults are a threat to both women and men in uniform and that the Pentagon must do more to fight a culture that discourages victims from reporting assaults.
Reports of sexual assaults by members of the military rose 50 percent after the Pentagon began a vigorous campaign to get more victims to come forward, according to the Pentagon's annual report on sexual assaults, released Thursday.
Hagel said he is ordering six new initiatives, including efforts to get more male victims to come forward and a review of alcohol sales and policies. He says the review must address the risks of alcohol being used as a weapon by predators.
Final data obtained by The Associated Press show that about 14 percent of the reports filed last year involved male victims.
Defense officials said Wednesday that encouraging more men to report sexual assaults is a difficult challenge because male victims often worry that it will make people think they are weak and trigger questions about their sexual orientation. In most cases, however, sexual orientation has nothing to do with the assault and it's more an issue of power or abuse.
"There is still a misperception that this is a women's issue and women's crime," said Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office. "It's disheartening that we have such a differential between the genders and how they are choosing to report."
Hagel called on the military services to step up efforts to encourage troops to intervene in assault situations and work with military bases and local communities to better train bar workers and promote more responsible alcohol sales. According to officials, alcohol was a factor in as many as two-thirds of the cases.
Under the military's definition, a sexual assault can be anything from unwanted sexual contact, such as inappropriate touching or grabbing, to sodomy and rape.
While the number of reported assaults shot up sharply in 2013, defense officials said that based on survey data and other information, they believe the increase was largely due to victims feeling more comfortable coming forward. Overall, there were 5,061 reports of sexual abuse filed in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 3,374 in 2012, for a 50 percent gain. About 10 percent of the 2013 reports involved incidents that occurred before the victim got into the military, up from just 4 percent in 2012.
"There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime," said Maj. Gen. 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."
Over the past two years, the military services have increased awareness of the problem and treatment programs to instill more confidence in the system and get victims to come forward. Phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers are plastered across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And top military officers have traveled to bases around the world speaking out on the issue.
Officials said prosecutions also have increased. Galbreath said the military was able to take some action against 73 percent of the accused perpetrators who were subject to the military justice system. In 2012 it was 66 percent. Some cases involve perpetrators who are not in the military so are not subject to commander's actions or military courts.
Sexual assault has been a front-burner issue for the military, Congress and the Obama administration over the past year, triggering Capitol Hill hearings and persistent questions about how effectively the military was preventing and prosecuting assaults and how well it was treating the victims. Fueling the outrage has been a number of high-profile assault cases and arrests, including incidents involving senior commanders, sexual assault prevention officers and a number of military trainers.
At the same time, the military has long struggled to get victims to report sexual assault in a stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and toughness. Too often, victims have complained they were afraid to report assaults to ranking officers for fear of retribution, or said that their initial complaints were rebuffed or ignored. A 2012 anonymous survey found that about 26,000 service members said they were the victim of some type of unwanted sexual contact or assault.
A key finding in that survey was that, in sheer numbers, more men than women said they had been assaulted. About 6.8 percent of women surveyed said they were assaulted and 1.2 percent of the men. But there are vastly more men in the military; by the raw numbers, a bit more than 12,000 women said they were assaulted, compared with nearly 14,000 men.
The military, Galbreath said, needs to get the message out that this is not just a women's problem.
"It's not the damsel in distress; it's your fellow service member that might need you to step in," he said, adding that troops need to treat it like any other need for aid, just like on the battlefield.
As a result, Hagel will press for a renewed emphasis on prevention and the need to take some of the programs various services have been conducting and use them across the military.
Those include programs that urge troops to intervene when they see a buddy in trouble or being harassed. And there now may be a move to work with bars and stores that sell alcohol around the bases to educate their employees, offer menus when they serve drinks and review hours of liquor sales.