By Jennifer Steinhauer
WASHINGTON — Reports of sexual assault in the military increased sharply during the last fiscal year, new Pentagon figures showed Wednesday, just weeks before a defense bill with provisions to tackle the problem is expected to reach the Senate floor.
There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints reported to the Defense Department in the first three quarters of the fiscal year, from October 2012 through June, a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. Defense Department officials said the numbers had continued to rise.
The numbers included sexual assaults by civilians on service members and by service members on civilians. Sexual assault was defined in the report as rape, sodomy and other unwanted sexual contact, including touching of private body parts. It did not include sexual harassment, which is handled by another office in the military.
Military officials cast the increase of reported complaints in positive terms and said it showed an increased willingness among victims of assault to come forward. But the numbers are also the latest in a series of developments underscoring the problem of sexual assault in the military, which has vexed Pentagon officials and drawn fire from Congress and the White House.
“More reports mean more victims are getting the necessary health care,” said Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, the director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “More reports means a bridge to more cases being investigated by law enforcement and more offenders being held accountable.”
Each year the department reports the number of assault claims, which lag behind a separate survey on sexual assault taken every other year among 1.4 million active-duty service members. Last summer that survey found that about 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010.
The release of the new data comes at a time when Congress is considering changes to the military justice system that would give sexual assault victims more resources and possibly reduce the power of military commanders to reverse the convictions of offenders.
On Thursday and Friday a congressional panel will hold public hearings designed to assess the progress of the military in reducing the problem of sexual assault. So far the Pentagon is offering military commanders more education on preventing such assaults, expanding an Air Force program designed to provide legal counsel directly to victims and increasing the accountability for leaders across the chain of command.
In a twist, the Pentagon found that a substantial number of the reported cases of sexual assault — something less than 10 percent — occurred before the victim entered the military.
“Folks have heard about the services and programs that we have for victims, and they are walking in the door to get those services,” General Patton said. “This is a strong indicator that people have heard our message and believe we are going to take care of them.”
The number of cases of sexual assault that occurred before a victim joined the military were included in the 3,553 complaints.
The defense bill that is set to come to the Senate floor this month includes various changes to the military justice system. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, is to offer an amendment that would take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command and give military prosecutors, rather than accusers’ commanders, the power to decide which cases to try. Pentagon leaders are strongly opposed to Ms. Gillibrand’s amendment.
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, is pushing legislation that does not go as far. Supported by the Pentagon and Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, the measure would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury verdicts and mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault. But it would keep control of court-martial proceedings within the chain of command.
Another measure offered this week by Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, would exempt victims of sexual assault from having to testify at what the military calls Article 32 pretrial hearings, which can include cross-examinations of victim that are so intense they frighten many victims from coming forward.
On Wednesday, Ms. Gillibrand made a broad push in an effort to drum up 60 votes in support of her measure.
“There is no accountability,” she said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. “Because the trust that any justice will be served has been irreparably broken under the current system, where commanders hold all the cards over whether a case moves forward for prosecution.”
Ben Klay, a former Marine, choked up as he described the ordeal of his wife, Ariana Klay, a former Marine officer who was sexually assaulted.
“I’m lucky I married someone so strong,” he said, as Ms. Gillibrand and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, appeared to cry. “Even though she still suffers.”
There remains little support for Ms. Gillibrand’s bill within the Pentagon.
“We want commanders more involved in solving this problem of sexual assault in the military, not less involved,” General Patton said.
(To read original article, visit this New York Times link )