WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Thursday that he's ordering the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy to re-screen troops in sensitive posts after an Army review disqualified 588 soldiers.
Hagel made the announcement during a briefing about sexual assault in the ranks. The Pentagon saw a 50% increase in reports of sexual assault in 2013 over the previous year, according to a report released Thursday.
The Army's review was more extensive than the other services and included soldiers who worked as recruiters, instructors and sexual assault counselors. In all, the service looked into the records of about 20,000 soldiers. Initially, the Navy suspended a handful of sailors, but officials re-screened their personnel and disqualified 151 sailors and civilians.
The Air Force disqualified five airmen, while the Marines did not suspend anyone.
The latest sexual assault report showed the surge in complaints was led by a spike of 86% among Marines.
There were 5,061 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2013 compared with 3,374 in 2012.
Reports about sexual assault range from groping to rape. However, reports remain a fraction of the estimated total instances of unwanted sexual contact. The Pentagon estimated in 2012 that there were 26,000 such events. There were no similar figures on the prevalence of attacks released for 2013.
The Pentagon has been prodded by Capitol Hill, and advocates for sexual assault victims, to change the way it treats victims and prosecutes offenders. The military nearly lost a cherished privilege in the fight: preserving commanders' ability to mete out punishment and refer cases for prosecution. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., fell just short of receiving enough votes to require all such cases to be handled by career prosecutors.
The new report, she said, is alarming.
"Today's report is deeply troubling and shows the scourge of sexual assaults has not been brought under control and our current military justice system remains broken," Gillibrand said. "Since today's report does not include a total estimated number of crimes committed, it is impossible to draw any conclusions regarding the number of increased reports. The report in front of us should send chills down people's spines."
Still, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D.-Mo., who championed a number of changes to the military justice system and aid to victims of assault, said increased reporting represents progress because victims feel their complaints will be heard. She noted that reporting increased less than 6% from 2011 to 2012.
Half the women who reported being assaulted in the 2013 survey said they declined to step forward out of fear that everyone would find out. Nearly half said they thought they would be labeled a troublemaker. Forty-three percent did not expect to be believed. At least one in five who did seek prosecution later regretted doing so.
The 2013 report showed that in 2012, only one in 10 reported the crime, and even agreed to press charges. The 2013 study by the Pentagon concluded that "far fewer victims report sexual assault than are estimated to experience it on an annual basis."
"These numbers show concrete progress as our recent sweeping reforms continue to take root and more victims have the confidence in the system to come out of the shadows and report these crimes," McCaskill said in a statement. "We know that the majority of survivors, both military and civilian, choose not to report their assaults — but this data suggests that the number of brave men and women in uniform choosing to pursue justice is increasing. Ultimately, one sexual assault is still one too many, so while these numbers represent progress, our fight is far from over."
That's certainly the case for the Marine Corps. The service recorded 808 complaints in 2012, an increase of 86%, according to testimony by Marine Corps Commandant James Amos and the service's internal newsletter on sexual assault prevention. That increase comes atop a 31% increase in 2012.
Sexual assault "tears at the fabric" of the Marine Corps, Col. Michael Hudson, the Corps' top officer in charge of preventing the crime, told a small group of reporters. The spike in reports, Hudson said, "speaks directly to trust and confidence" in how cases will be handled. He also attributed the increase to a growing awareness about what sexual assault is and when a complaint should be lodged. Hudson also noted that 22% of the reports in 2013 concerned attacks that occurred before a Marine entered the service.
"I have a problem, but I'm moving in the right direction," Hudson said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said an improved climate for complaints has led to more people coming forward.
"What we have seen and what we believe to be the case is that this sharp increase in reporting is related to an increase in trust in the system, which is a result of the significant changes that have been put in place in the last two years," Carney said. "That by no means suggests that more doesn't need to be done. It does. A single case of sexual assault in the military, the president believes, is one too many."
Overall, the rate of prosecution in sexual assault cases declined slightly in 2013 compared with 2012. The 5,061 reports of sexual assault in 2013 resulted in court-martial charges in 838 cases. That compares with 594 courts-marital in 2012 out of 3,374 complaints. Thus, the rate of prosecution in sexual assault cases declined from 17.6% to 16.6%.
The Pentagon, the report showed, has made only incremental program in persuading people to press charges. Two years ago, 23.59% of reported victims pressed charges. In 2012, it was 24.18%, and it was 25.5% in 2013.
Contributing: Aamer Madhani