Nov. 21 (UPI) -- In a new report released by the Department of Defense, new data shows the number of sexual assault cases reported to officials has decreased over time, while officials estimate more of the crimes are being reported than ever before.
The report shows a decrease in the number of reported sexual assaults in the military, with the rate of sexual assault among active duty women declining from 6.1 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2016 and from 1.2 percent of active duty men in 2012 to 0.6 percent in 2016.
The Defense Department uses the term "sexual assault" to refer to a range of adult sex-related crimes, and can include "penetrating crimes such as rape and forcible sodomy, to sexual contact crimes that includes aggravated and abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit these offenses."
The Pentagon made public the number of sexual assault reports from 2013 through 2016, with some of the biggest U.S. military installations consistently handling the most sexual assault cases year-to-year -- including the world's largest Navy base, in Norfolk, Va., leading all other military installations in sexual assault cases reported for the last three years.
The Defense Department said it decided to publish the data for the first time because of the large amount of Freedom of Information Act requests seeking to obtain the findings.
Pentagon officials historically have denied Freedom of Information Act requests to journalists seeking to know the numbers. However, officials determined that the data could be released without harming victims.
Officials estimate that, prior to 2014, 15 percent or less of sexual assault victims in the military reported the crime. In 2014 and 2015, however, the rate of reporting increased to about 25 percent and officials estimate that 32 percent of those who experienced an assault reported it in 2016.
"To understand the full magnitude of the problem of sexual assault in the military, DoD sponsors confidential surveys that scientifically sample the military population," officials wrote in the report. "These representative surveys give the Department very reliable estimates about how many Service members likely experienced a sexual assault in a given year."
Naval Station Norfolk, which is home to more than 50,000 members of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, posted 270 reports of sexual assault in 2016 -- a statistic that represents more than 20 percent of cases recorded by the Navy. In 2015, Norfolk posted 291.
Other large military installations, such as the Army's Fort Hood, in Texas, and U.S. Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, routinely receive a high number of sexual assault reports. Internationally, Camp Humphreys in South Korea reported 37 cases in 2016, with 54 cases being reported in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka, in Japan, had 53 cases.
Pentagon officials cautioned that the numbers do not necessarily indicate the reported sexual assaults occurred at those facilities, or that a crime was actually committed.
"One of the features of the department's reporting program is that service members can report allegations of sexual assault at any time and at any place," Dr. Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said in a press release.
"A report could involve allegations for an incident that occurred while on deployment, while away on leave, or even prior to entering the military. This kind of flexibility allows the department to better meet the department's goals to increase reporting of sexual assault and decrease the occurrence of the crime through prevention."
While sexual misbehavior has come to light across society from Hollywood to Washington and beyond, the military has not escaped from grappling with the issue.
In March, the Pentagon investigated a Facebook page used by hundreds of Marines who shared thousands of nude photos of their female colleagues.
Some members of the Marines United Facebook group -- which had nearly 30,000 members -- posted photographs of nude women in more than 12 different Google Drive accounts featuring more photographs. More than two dozen women in the photographs were identified by their full name, rank and military duty station. Some of the victims were on active duty, including officers and enlisted service members.
Defense Department officials said that the "department's annual reports on sexual assault in the military have reported regular declines in the prevalence rates of sexual assault among the force," while also increasing the number of people who report such crimes.