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Hagel: More Reported Sexual Assaults Are Good For The Military


The Pentagon unveiled new numbers on sexual assaults in the military. A key finding - more people are reporting that they've been assaulted. The Pentagon says that's good news. More people coming forward signals greater trust in the military justice system, but critics in Congress say that in cases involving sexual assault, military justice still needs fixing.

As NPR's David Welna explains, both sides are using today's report to support their arguments.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made his first public appearance today since announcing his resignation last week. It was to present the Pentagon's thousand-page report on sexual assaults in the military over the past year.


DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We're not there yet, but we will get there.

WELNA: Hagel said a survey carried out by the RAND Corp. of more than 170,000 service members was something of a mixed message.


HAGEL: Overall, the data shows that while there have been indications of real progress, measurable progress, over the last two years, with improvement in 10 of the 12 specific measures. Including reduced prevalence and increased reporting, we still have a long way to go.

WELNA: There are two sets of numbers that are key in this new report. One is the number of actual incidents of sexual assaults. The Pentagon estimates some 20,000 took place last year. That's down 25 percent from two years ago. The other key number is how many of those assaults got reported. Hagel said the nearly 6,000 cases that were referred to authorities last year represented an increase over the previous reporting period.


HAGEL: That's actually good news. Two years ago we estimated about 1 in 10 sexual assaults were being reported. Today it's 1 in 4. These crimes, however, are still heavily under-reported, both nationally and in the military.

WELNA: Hagel also noted that for every five women who reported sexual assaults, three said they'd endured some form of retaliation from fellow members of the military. Shortly after Hagel presented the report, a group of senators led by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill called a news conference. She's been a central player in the debate on Capitol Hill over the changing the military justice system. McCaskill said this report card of sorts on the reforms to military justice that she pushed through last year showed mostly good news.


SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Seventy-three percent of the survivors indicated they were satisfied with the unit commander's response to the sexual assault, and 73 percent of the survivors also indicated that based on their overall experience, they would recommend others report what had happened to them to the military.

WELNA: But at a rival news conference, other senators from both parties saw the report quite differently. They said it underscores the need for more fundamental reforms.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand has led an effort to remove jurisdiction over sexual assault cases from the military chain of command. She said too many sexual assault victims still fear coming forward.


SENATOR KRISTEN GILLIBRAND: The percentage of those who will report openly, it's called unrestricted reporting, actually went down. So when the Department of Defense says, oh look, there's 5,000 cases reported, people are confident in the system - well, actually they're not.

WELNA: Gillibrand says if she can't get her bill taking assault cases out of the chain of command passed this year, she'll try again next year. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.