May 2 (UPI) -- Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called Thursday for sweeping reforms in how the military handles sexual assaults after a new report showed a 38 percent increase in such attacks.
The report, released Thursday, found that 20,500 service members, representing about 13,000 women and 7,500 men, experienced sexual assault in 2018, up from about 14,900 in the last biennial survey in 2016.
"It is clear that sexual assault and sexual harassment are persistent challenges," Shanahan said in a statement. "To put it bluntly we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other. This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on."
Some reforms he recommended include: seeking a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment, launching a program to catch serial offenders, improving assessments of character for military applicants, and preparing leaders for their supervisory roles to prevent assault.
The spike was mainly due to increased assaults against women, while the rate for men remained relatively unchanged, the report shows.
Sexual assault is characterized as unwanted sexual contact ranging from groping to rape.
Women age 17-24 were at the highest risk.
"We're very concerned about that," said Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response Office, adding that the Pentagon will target troops in that age range for prevention efforts.
More than 85 percent of victims knew their assailant and alcohol was a factor in 62 percent of assaults.
The statistics are closer to 2014, when 20,300 people experienced sexual assault, though the number of women sexually assaulted has significantly increased to 6.2 percent compared to 4.9 percent in 2014.
The increase has occurred despite the military investing in policies and actions to prevent and respond to sexual assaults for over a decade through its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, according to the report's executive summary.
Although sexual assaults increased in 2018, they remained below estimates of 34,200 in 2006 and 26,000 in 2012.
"Our progress over the decade is we have seen the prevalence of sexual assault decrease, but what we have learned from this year's report is this is a situation that can bounce back, and we have to then be deliberate and kind of confirmed in our resolution to take action." Navy Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt said in a statement.
A Pentagon report released earlier this year showed unwanted sexual contact also increased in military service academies from the 2015-16 academic year to 2017-18 by nearly 50 percent.
Last month, Sen. Martha McSally. R-Ariz., said during a congressional hearing that she was raped a by a superior officer while serving the in the U.S. Air Force.