Reports of sexual assaults across the military increased by 3 percent in 2019, according to new statistics released by the Pentagon on Thursday.
The roughly 3 percent hike over 2018 includes assaults that occurred between service members, U.S. civilians and foreign nationals who alleged a sexual assault by a service member, and reports from service members who sought assistance for a sexual assault that occurred prior to military service.
Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the numbers reflect that sexual assault is being reported at a much higher rate, which defense officials have argued is a positive trend as it’s a significantly underreported crime.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s good news, I just can’t characterize it one way or another,” Galbreath told reporters on Thursday.
Overall, there were 7,825 reports of sexual assaults in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 7,623 reports in 2018.
More reports, Galbreath pointed out, shows there is greater confidence in the reporting system and more trust in the support for victims.
However, it’s unclear if the increase in 2019 actually represents that victims are more willing to come forward or if sexual assault is a growing problem, as the data does not include a more thorough anonymous survey on sexual assault that is only conducted every other year.
“Addressing sexual assault is really one of the most challenging topics that we face in the military but it’s so critical we get this right. ... We are really aware of the high cost of not succeeding in this,” Galbreath said.
He added that the move to vanquish sexual assault in the ranks is made all the more important by its ties to force readiness and its ability to hinder individuals from joining and remaining in the military.
The 3 percent increase was fueled by a 9 percent jump in sexual assault reports in the Air Force — the highest percentage uptick of all the services — with 1,683 reported assaults in 2019 compared with 1,544 in 2018.
The Navy saw an increases of more than 4 percent with 1,774 reported sexual assaults, while the Army went up about 2 percent with 3,219 cases in 2019.
The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was the only military service to have fewer sexual assaults reported compared to 2018, falling nearly 7 percent to 1,149 from 1,228.
“Sexual assault is a deliberate fratricide that tears at the fabric of our organization and erodes readiness. We must work hard every day to eliminate it from our ranks,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyTwo-star general at Fort Hood cleared after internal investigation Vice News promotes Micheal Learmonth to editor-in-chief Trump appointee endorses Christine Wormuth as Army secretary MORE and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in a statement following the report’s release.
The annual report “highlights the need for proactive prevention and effective intervention to ensure the safety of our force, particularly the youngest members of our Army Team,” they added.
Galbreath said he is encouraged by the increase in sexual assault reports, which have steadily gone up since 2006.
He said the Pentagon has sought to stamp out the issue by working to encourage victims to come forward, training young leaders to recognize and curtail such sexual harassment and assault in their units early on and launching a program to discover serial offenders.
The program to catch serial offender, started in August, so far has found five accused repeat attackers by tracking confidential information provided by victims.
“Our work to eliminate sexual assault reflects our ongoing commitment to advance a culture of trust, respect, and inclusion within the force.” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency. “We cannot, and will not, waver in our commitment to eliminate these behaviors from our force and ensure that all who serve are treated, and treat others, with dignity and respect.”