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US military sees spike in sexual assault reports

Reports of sexual assault in the US military increased by nearly 10% in 2017, according to the Pentagon's annual study released on Monday, as the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all documented a rise in reported incidents.

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Zachary Cohen
Ryan Browne (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Reports of sexual assault in the US military increased by nearly 10% in 2017, according to the Pentagon's annual study released on Monday, as the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all documented a rise in reported incidents.

The study shows that last year, 5,277 service members reported being sexually assaulted during their time in the military compared to 4,794 in 2016.

Factoring in reports by Department of Defense civilians and incidents that occurred before the service member joined the military, the Pentagon recorded a total of 6,769 reported assaults in 2017.

While the military continues to see the number of reported incidents steadily increase each year, they say that surveys they've carried out indicate the number of victims is reducing.

In a 2016 survey, the Pentagon found that the number of US service members who were victims of sexual assault declined by over 5,000, reaching a 10-year low.

"Over the last decade the department has made progress, fewer service members experience sexual assault, more service members than ever are making the courageous decision to report their experiences and to receive restorative require," said Dr. Elizabeth Van Winkle, the Pentagon's principal director for force resiliency.

"While the progress we've seen provides some comfort, we neither take it for granted nor are we under any illusions that our work is done. In fact we see this progress as cautionary and recognize one of the greatest threats to progress is complacency," she said.

The Army recorded the highest number of reported assaults last year with 2,706 and saw an increase of 8.4% compared to 2016. The Air Force documented 1,480 reports with an increase of 9.2% while the Navy saw an increase of 9.3% with 1,585 reports, according to the Pentagon study.

But the Marine Corps saw the largest increase in reports among the four branches at 14.7% -- a rise that has caught the attention of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

"We attribute this largely to people hearing their commanders and their leadership talking about how important this is ... how that no one should have to tolerate sexual assault ... to come forward help that you need so we can get you the restorative care that you require and then also to hold defenders appropriately accountable," said Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

However, Galbreath also noted that it is difficult to determine what is driving the increase without the prevalence estimates for 2017 as those statistics are compiled every two years.

And while the Pentagon asserts that an increase in reporting indicates that victims are becoming more confident in the system, critics argue that the numbers fail to tell the whole story.

"The military must not rely on an increase in reporting as a sign of progress," said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, Director of Government Relations at the Service Woman's Action Network.

"The number of reports could be due to more confidence that justice will be done, however it could also mean that more assaults are occurring --- or both. The increase in reporting should not be spun as good news while sexual assaults continue unabated," Manning said.

The Pentagon also noted in Monday's report that authorities had sufficient evidence to take some kind of disciplinary action against 62% of the 3,567 military subjects of sexual assault investigations that were considered.

Of the 2,218 subjects with sufficient evidence to receive disciplinary action, 53% received action on a sexual assault charge, according to the study.

But some argue that decreasing conviction rates reveal that the military is still struggling to hold individuals accountable.

Despite the almost 10% jump in reports between 2016 and 2017, conviction rates have decreased from 4.2 percent to 4 percent during the same time period and convictions dropped from 413 in 2015 to 281 last year, according to SWAN.

"An increase in reporting is only good if it leads to justice. It hasn't," SWAN CEO Lydia Watts said in a statement. "Despite the increase in reporting, actual convictions from sexual assault reports have decreased over the last three years. The military is encouraging victims to come forward, and when they do, it hangs them out to dry."

Retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, Director of Research and Programs at SWAN, added that the military is not only failing to hold perpetrators accountable but that those service members who do report sexual assault are still highly likely to experience retaliation.

"In the FY2017 report, 70% of a representative sample of victims report some form of personal or professional retaliation after coming forward," she said.

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