Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin has made fighting sexual assault in the military a top priority and has implement several changes to do so since taking over the nation's defense department last year. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 1 (UPI) -- Reports of sexual assault in the U.S. military increased 13% last year, representing the highest prevalence of sexual assault against women and the second highest against men since the recording of such crimes began 15 years ago.
The findings were released Thursday in a Congress-mandated annual report on sexual assault involving members of the U.S. Armed Forces that tallied 8,866 reports of sexual assault during the last fiscal year, a jump of more than 1,050 from a year prior.
The report said that while all branches of the military saw increases in sexual assault reports, the overall number was buoyed by the Army, which produced 4,081 reports of sexual assault, an increase of more than 25% from fiscal year 2020.
The Army said that taking into account a "modest increase" in the population of the military branch between the two years, the number equals about 7.1 reports per 1,000 active duty soldiers, nearly two reports more compared to the previous three fiscal years.
The number also continues a climbing trend in sexual assault reports in the Army that goes back to fiscal year 2012 when it saw 2.3 reports per 1,000 active duty soldiers and 5.5 in fiscal year 2018 through fiscal year 2020.
"The Army believes that the increase in the rate of reporting of sexual assault by SM victims ... does not necessarily correspond to an increase in the number of actual assaults," it said in its report. "Rather, the priority placed on sexual assault prevention and response by the Army since FY12 may have encouraged more victims to come forward and report incidents of this vastly under reported crime."
The branches that saw the smallest increase were the Air Force and the Marines, which each experienced a 2% increase in reports of sexual assault, followed by the Navy and its 9% increase and the National Guard that experienced a jump of more than 11%.
According to the report, a survey found that 8.4% of active duty women and 1.5% of active duty men say they have experience unwanted sexual contact in the previous 12 months, representing an estimated 35,875 active duty services members.
"These numbers are tragic and extremely disappointing," Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, said during a Thursday press conference. "These events not only have an impact at an individual level, but they also degrade our readiness and ability for the department to conduct our mission.
"Every incident has a ripple effect across the unit and impacts unit cohesion, ability to trust and distracts from the critical mission at hand."
Since taking over the military last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has made cracking down on sexual assault and harassment within the military a top priority and established an independent review commission that march to put forward recommendations.
Later that year, Austin announced that he had accepted all 82 of the commissions recommendations across four priority areas, with the most notable change being the removal of prosecutorial powers over sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.
Foster said the findings of Thursday's report reinforces the need for the ongoing implementation of the commission's recommendations.
Austin also released a memo to the military Thursday calling for the redoubling of efforts to address sexual assault within their ranks, including the establishment of a new, full-time and specialized prevention workforce to stop these crimes before they happen.
"We have heard loud and clear from our victims that the conditions in the force are unacceptable right now," Foster said. "And that is why we are making unprecedented resource investments to get after this problem."