The Cable

Pentagon: 20,300 Troops Sexually Assaulted or Harassed in 2014

For the second year in a row, the Defense Department reports that more men than women suffered sexual assault in the military in 2014, a surprising wrinkle for a Pentagon struggling to get a handle on an epidemic that has sparked fury on Capitol Hill and among the public. The department estimates that a total ...

US Military Leaders Testify At Senate Hearing On Sexual Assaults In Military
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 04: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (R) shakes hands with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey as Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond Odierno looks on following testimony with U.S. military leaders before the Senate Armed Services Committee on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military June 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. A recent survey of active duty personnel by the Pentagon revealed that 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men reported receiving "unwanted sexual contact" in the past year. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For the second year in a row, the Defense Department reports that more men than women suffered sexual assault in the military in 2014, a surprising wrinkle for a Pentagon struggling to get a handle on an epidemic that has sparked fury on Capitol Hill and among the public.

The department estimates that a total of 20,300 service members — 10,600 men and 9,600 women – were sexually assaulted or were the victims of what the department calls “unwanted sexual contact” during the course of the year.

The military said that a total of 6,131 people reported being assaulted in 2014, which marks an 11 percent increase over 2013 and a staggering 70 percent leap over 2012. Leaders say those numbers show that servicemembers are more comfortable reporting these incidents than they had been in the past. The last time such a wide-ranging survey was conducted was in 2012, and the numbers that year estimated that about 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted, with roughly 14,000 of the victims being men.

Overall, the new report strikes a hard-nosed but cautiously optimistic tone, noting the positive turn in the numbers of reported incidents while acknowledging that the military has a long way to go to make service members feel comfortable reporting an incident.

In a memo to Pentagon leaders, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote that “despite our efforts to date, our fight against sexual assault is far from over. I am concerned that far too many who report the crime perceive some kind of retaliation with doing so.”

Speaking to reporters Friday, he added that “the report makes it clear that we have to do more.”

The Pentagon’s growing focus on the issue might not be enough for a powerful voice in the U.S. Senate, who has been pushing the department to do more, most notably by taking the handling of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military chain of command.

New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal to do just that in the last Congress met with full-throated objections from the Defense Department, which maintained that taking away these reporting requirements would undermine a commander’s ability to enforce discipline and good order in the ranks. Gilibrand didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Nathan Galbreath, the defense official tasked with preventing sexual assault, insisted on Friday that there’s good news here hidden in the dispiritingly high numbers, including the fact that more service members feel protected enough by leadership to come forward, and the increasing level of awareness among officers and enlisted about the issue. By the Defense Department’s own count reporting numbers are up, and the total estimated assault numbers are down.

One dark spot in the report is the admission that not a lot of progress has been made in stamping out retaliation against those who report an incident either from unit leadership or other service members, Galbreath admitted.

Real or perceived retaliation via social media. media is giving victims something new to worry about. The numbers – such as they exist – can be staggering. The Army’s Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention, or SHARP, program reports 90 percent of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases were found to “include the use of digital/social media” the report states.

In response, the Defense Department and the services have launched a variety of studies to look at the issue, while struggling to come up with real guidelines for how to handle things like “unfriending” someone or posting unflattering pictures on Facebook, or posting information on Twitter or a host of ever changing social media platforms.

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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