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Reported sexual assaults in the military rose a staggering 50 percent last year over 2012, the Defense Department said Thursday, a rise it attributed to Pentagon efforts to persuade victims to step forward and not an actual increase in assaults.
The annual report on sexual assaults is the first since the Pentagon undertook a renewed high-visibility campaign last year to clamp down on them and to encourage victims not to stay silent in the macho military environment.
"There is no indication that this increase in reporting constitutes an increase in crime," Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, head of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention programs, said at a news conference Thursday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. "We assess that this unprecedented increase is consistent with a growing confidence in the response systems."
Hagel agreed, asserting that victims "are growing more confident in our system" and that the sharp increase in reported assaults reflects those efforts.
Fourteen percent of the 2013 reports disclosed alleged assaults that occurred before 2012 — some of them even before the victim was in the military. The number of reported assaults that actually took place in calendar year 2013 rose by about 27 percent.
But Hagel said it's clear the military still has "a long way to go" before it's even close to ending sexual assaults.
Hagel announced six new initiatives, including a review of the military's alcohol policies and better procedures to encourage male victims to report assaults.
That recommendation highlights another stunning trend in the report: Almost half of those who reported abusive sexual contact and sexual assault last year were men.
"We have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak, but rather because an offender disregards our values and the law," Hagel said. "Input from male victims will be critical."
Hagel promised to hold "every level of command" responsible for addressing the persistent problem.
"We must hold ourselves accountable for living up to our values, meeting standards and making sure that everyone — whether they’re in the military or not — is treated with dignity and respect," he said.
M. Alex Johnson of NBC News contributed to this report.