The prevalence of sexual assaults in the U.S. military is only getting worse, with service members expressing limited confidence in the system to bring perpetrators to justice, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the issue, released Thursday.
What’s more, 8.4 percent of female service members had unwanted sexual contact in 2021, the highest rate since the department began tracking figures in 2006. For men, it was at 1.5 percent, the second-highest figure since 2006.
The data is a stark reminder that despite efforts by the Pentagon to address the long-standing problem, curtailing sexual assaults in the military has so far evaded officials.
“These numbers are tragic and extremely disappointing,” Elizabeth Foster, the DOD’s director of force resiliency, told reporters ahead of the document’s release.
“On an individual level, it is devastating to conceptualize that these numbers mean that over 35,000 service members’ lives and careers were irrevocably changed by these crimes.”
Overall, out of nearly 35,900 incidents that the department estimated to have occurred, there were 8,866 sexual assault reports filed from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021. That adds up to less than a quarter of suspected incidents being reported.
The spike was largely driven by the Army, where reports of sexual assault increased 25.6 percent from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021.
The Navy, meanwhile, experienced a 9.2 percent increase of reported sexual assaults, while the Air Force and the Marines each had a roughly 2 percent increase.
Unsurprisingly, confidence in the military’s response to sexual assault is waning, with only 39 percent of female service members saying they trust those in their chain of command to “treat them with dignity and respect” after an incident, compared with 66 percent in 2018.
For male troops during the same time period, only 63 percent were confident they would be treated well after reporting an assault, down from 82 percent in 2018.
The lack of confidence is likely linked to a drop in prosecutions for sexual assault. In 2021, only 42 percent of the 1,974 cases that ended in discipline saw court-martial proceedings.
That’s a far cry from 2013, when military services started court-martial proceedings for 71 percent of 1,187 cases.
The dismal findings have some lawmakers calling for more changes at the DOD.
Though language was included in the most recently passed National Defense Authorization Act to overhaul the military justice system — taking most decisions on whether to prosecute cases of rape and sexual assault away from military commanders — that’s not enough, according to Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
Speier, the chairwoman of the House Armed Services military personnel subpanel, called the results “disturbing” and announced that she would hold a hearing in the coming weeks “to get more answers,” according to a statement from her office.
“The watchful eye of Congress is needed to ensure that military leadership is held to account and any additional changes deemed necessary to address this national embarrassment and crisis are made,” she said in the statement. “If we fail to do so, we risk further erosion of the confidence of our troops and further undermining of DoD’s struggling recruitment and retention efforts.”
For its part, Pentagon leadership is trying to be proactive in combating sexual assaults in the military services.
Even prior to the start of his tenure, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledged to combat sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.
During his confirmation hearing in January 2021, the retired general said he would “fight hard to stamp out” the issue, which he has called a “scourge” within the military.
In pursuit of that goal, Austin directed an Independent Review Commission to give the DOD recommendations on how to address the problem. The commission came back with 80 recommendations, all of which the Pentagon adopted into a plan in September 2021.
And on Thursday the Pentagon chief sent a DOD-wide memo calling on officials to “redouble efforts to address sexual assault in the military,” Foster said.
The effort will include “fielding a new full time and specialized prevention workforce to get to the left of these incidents and stop these crimes before they occur,” she added.