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Originally published Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 9:13 PM

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New Pentagon survey finds surge in sexual assaults

Sexual assaults appear to be rising across the military, stirring bipartisan calls from Congress and President Obama for tougher action against those found guilty of the assaults and more assistance for victims.

Seattle Times staff and wire reports

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Sexual assaults are rising across the military and thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite a slew of new oversight and assistance programs, according to Defense Department documents released Tuesday.

In a 12-month period that ended in September, up to 26,000 military members were estimated to have been victims of rapes or other sex crimes, according to estimates drawn from a confidential survey of service members.

That was an increase of more than 35 percent from estimates made a year earlier.

The results were part of a 729-page report mandated by Congress that was made public Tuesday against a backdrop of scandals, including a continuing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base.

The findings resonate at bases across the country, including in Washington state, where military installations and the National Guard have stepped up prevention efforts in recent years.

President Obama delivered a sharp rebuke Tuesday, saying he has no tolerance for the problem. He said that any military member found guilty of sexual assault should be held accountable, prosecuted and fired.

“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way,’’ he said. “We’re going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard.”

Women were at greatest risk, and that risk appears to be growing. The survey indicated that about 12,000 women, 6.1 percent of those in active service, experienced a sexual assault in the 12 months that ended in September. That’s up from 4.4 percent in 2010.

The survey also indicated that men, who make up by far the greatest proportion of the military, suffered the most assaults; some 14,000, or about 1.2 percent of active-duty men, in fiscal year 2011.

The results indicate that rape and other sexual crimes remain vastly unreported. Though the survey estimated as many as 26,000 victims, the numbers of assaults actually reported by military members tallied 3,374 during that time period.

The report comes just days after the Air Force’s head of sexual-assault prevention was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a suburban Virginia parking lot.

It also follows a heated debate over whether commanders should be stripped of the authority to overturn military-jury verdicts, as one officer did in a recent sexual-assault conviction.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was worried that the military “may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”

Hagel on Tuesday also announced a series of policy revisions, including, he said, holding “all military commanders accountable for establishing command climates of dignity and respect,” as well as considering new assistance for alleged victims.

The frequency and ugly nature of these crimes also has stirred a strong bipartisan response in Congress.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and her colleague, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on Tuesday introduced a bill that would provide for military lawyers to act as specialized victims’ counsels, bar sexual contact between military instructors and trainees, and refer sexual-assault charges to general court martials when there is a conflict of interest within the victim’s immediate chain of command.

“When our best and our brightest put on a uniform and join the United States armed forces, they do so with the understanding that they will sacrifice much in the name of defending our country and its people. However, it’s unconscionable to think that entertaining unwanted sexual contact from within the ranks is now part of that equation,’’ Murray said.

In her remarks introducing the bill, Murray cited the case of a Washington National Guard member who reported a sexual assault during a weekend-training exercise at a military base.

She said the Guard member contacted a military sexual-assault coordinator but was told they could not be of assistance because the incident occurred when the Guard member was not on active duty. Only after repeated denials did she eventually receive help, according to Murray’s staff.

Capt. Joseph Siemandel, a spokesman for the Washington National Guard, said he was not aware of the case cited by Murray. But he said that none of the Guard’s sexual-assault coordinators would turn away a Guard member who complained of sexual assault.

The Pentagon study, based on anonymous surveys, was released two days after an officer in charge of sexual-assault-prevention programs for the Air Force, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery.

In Congress, the arrest was cited as an example of the Pentagon’s failure to make progress despite the increased effort.

Lawmakers also are putting together legislation to essentially strip military officers of the authority to overturn convictions for serious offenses such as sexual assault.

For victims of military sexual assaults, their struggles may continue long after they leave the services, says Susan Avila-Smith, a Seattle veteran who has counseled sexual-assault victims.

Victims can receive Department of Veterans Affairs disability payments, but she said many may have difficulties gaining those benefits.

“Though we have finally seen some movement ... there’s so much more to be done, it is overwhelming,” Avila-Smith said.

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, The Associated Press, McClatchy News and The New York Times contributed to this story.

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