WASHINGTON — Defense Department researchers saw a nearly 40 percent jump in sexual assault reports from 2004 to 2005, but said they expected that increase after a change in reporting rules last year and an increased emphasis on the issue forcewide.

In fact, officials with the Joint Task Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response said they’re pleased with the higher numbers, noting that they believe it shows more victims are seeking and getting help after sexual attacks.

“We know this is one of the most underreported crimes in the country … and in the military we know there were sexual assaults not being reported,” said Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, commander of the task force. “We had members who were not getting care and support.

“But the fact that we had 435 victims who used the new restricted reporting is a good sign. Had we not had restricted reporting, we would not have known about those reports.”

Congress mandated the annual accounting of sexual assault data after a 2004 special investigation said Defense Department policies didn’t go far enough to address the problem of sexual assault in the military. Lawmakers requested that after hearing anecdotes of rapes and other attacks among troops in deployed to combat zones.

The new restricted reporting rules, which went into effect last June, allow victims of a sexual assault to seek counseling and support services without triggering a full military investigation.

Under the old rules, any victim who sought medical or emotional counseling was required to file a formal complaint, and their commanding officer was required to meet with them and discuss the case, McClain said.

“Now [the victims] are told the Defense Department would prefer the unrestricted reporting, but the decision is left to them,” she said. “It gives them back some measure of control.”

Of the 435 restricted reporting cases, 108 later changed their minds and opted for a full investigation. McClain called that figure encouraging, noting that she believes few of those investigations would have taken place if the victims had not had the option to receive counseling, collect their thoughts and go ahead with the process.

Of the 2,047 sexual assault investigations last year, 661 are still pending. In the completed cases, 42 percent of the alleged offenders received or will face some form of punitive action, ranging from letters of reprimand to courts-martial.

The report, delivered to Congress on Wednesday, does not break down assault reports by areas of operation. But McClain said in the CENTCOM theater only 169 sexual assaults were reported, a lower rate per person than other commands.

The new restricted reports made up 65 percent of the increase from 2004 to 2005. McClain said much of the remaining increase came from changes in Army accounting practices.

In the past, Army officials did not count reports which were dismissed after a preliminary investigation. McClain said this year they began including those numbers as well, which increased the total number of reports.

Victims of the sexual assaults were more likely to be attacked by a fellow servicemember than a civilian, according to the report. About 52 percent of the reported assaults were military on military attacks, and about 29 percent were servicemember on civilian attacks. About 4 percent were civilian attacks on military personnel.

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