Roughly one out of five military women say they were victims of unwanted sexual contact by another servicemember since joining the military, according to a Pentagon health survey conducted in 2011 and released Monday.
The highest rate of sexual abuse was in the Marine Corps: Nearly 30% of women said they suffered unwanted sexual contact by another military member. Close behind were the Army and Navy, each with about 24% of women raising the issue.
The sexual abuse rates appear to be significantly higher than similar survey findings from the 2008, although the Pentagon changed the way it conducted the 2011 survey of 34,000 troops, so comparisons are difficult.
Still, questions about unwanted sexual conduct were virtually identical in both surveys and in 2008, 11% to 12% of female soldiers and sailors said they were victims of unwanted touching, along with 17% of women who were Marines. About 29,000 troops were surveyed in 2008.
The survey results, combined with other recent research, "shows sexual assault is a persistent problem in the military," said Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office. "We realize we have more to do."
The results surface at a time when a growing number in Congress are concerned about sexual assault and harassment in the military, and the low rate of criminal complaints vs. a high rate of sexual assaults recorded in anonymous surveys such as the one released Monday.
"Obviously, this report is very alarming," says Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
She is working on legislation that would remove from the chain-of-command the decision to file charges in a felony case, including rape or other sexual assault.
Gillibrand says that victims of sexual assault in the military hesitate to complain because they fear retribution or skepticism from commanders. "This (survey) report highlights the need for legislation," she says.
Military leaders oppose the changes she is seeking.
The Pentagon has launched several initiatives in the last several month aimed at assisting sexual assault victims including expanding reporting options and prevention and response support services, says spokeswoman Cynthia Smith.
The Pentagon surveys tens of thousands of troops every three years on dozens of health-related issues. The 2011 survey came at the 10-year anniversary of the nation going to war in the wake of 9/11, offering a means to track the impact of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with results from surveys conducted in 2005 and 2008.
However, the Pentagon elected to change how the 2011 survey was conducted, said Mark Mattiko, a Coast Guard official discussing the survey at press briefing Monday. As a result, some questions were worded differently and some problems were defined differently.
In addition, the 2011 survey was conducted less expensively online rather than in person. There was a higher rate of troops declining to participate, increasing from 28% for the in-person surveys of 2008 to 78% in 2011 survey. The Pentagon, however, stands by the validity of the 2011 results.
Questions on some of the issues, such as unwanted sexual contact, were virtually identical with 2008 questions on the same issue, allowing for better comparisons.
-- In 2011, after a decade of war, 56% of troops have deployed to war; the highest rate was in the Army at 68%. About 23% of the service had seen high levels of combat -- about 42% of soldiers in that category.
-- Despite Pentagon efforts to encourage troops with mental health problems to seek help, stigma remained virtually unchanged from 2008 : About 38% said it would hurt their career. About one in five who sought help thought it damaged their career.
-- One in fourservicemembers were using prescription pain medication in 2011. The rate was even higher -- 34% -- among those troops engaged in heavy combat.
--According to the body mass index form of measurement, about half of troops in 2011 were overweight, what appeared to be an improvement from the 2008. data.