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Military sexual assault claims up 50%

| Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The number of reported sexual assaults across the military shot up by more than 50 percent this year — an increase that Defense officials say may suggest that victims are becoming more willing to come forward.

The tumultuous year of scandals has shined a spotlight on the crimes and put pressure on the military to take aggressive action, officials said.

A string of assaults and arrests triggered outrage in Congress and set off months of debate over how to change the military's justice system. Meanwhile, military leaders launched a series of new programs intended to beef up accountability and to encourage victims to come forward.

According to early data obtained by The Associated Press, there were more than 5,000 reports of sexual assault filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared to 3,374 in 2012. Of this year's reports, about 10 percent involved incidents that occurred before the victim entered the military, up from just 4 percent only a year ago. The increase, officials said, suggests that confidence in the system is growing and that victims are more willing to come forward.

Defense officials said they are cautious in their conclusions about the preliminary data. But they said surveys, focus groups and repeated meetings with service members throughout the year suggest that the number of actual incidents — from unwanted sexual contact and harassment to violent assaults — has remained largely steady.

“Given the multiple data points, we assess that this is more reporting,” said Col. Alan R. Metzler, deputy director of the Pentagon's sexual-assault prevention and response office. He noted that more victims are agreeing to make official complaints, rather than simply seeking medical care without filing formal accusations.

The military has struggled for years to get victims to report sexual harassment and assault in a stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and toughness. Too often, victims have complained that they were afraid to report assaults to ranking officers or that their initial complaints would be rebuffed or ignored.

Officials announced earlier this year that an anonymous survey found that about 26,000 service members reported some type of unwanted sexual contact or sexual assault.

The increases reports across the services ranges from a low of about 45 percent for the Air Force to a high of 86 percent for the Marines. The Navy had an increase of 46 percent and the Army had a 50 percent jump.

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