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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he had told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially” to prevent sexual assaults and punish attackers.

“If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period,” Obama said.

In a Pentagon news conference, Hagel called for change within the military as the Department of Defense released an annual report showing a dramatic increase in the number of assaults involving servicemembers.

“We need cultural change, where every servicemember is treated with dignity and respect,” he said, “where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness. Where victims’ privacy is protected. Where bystanders are motivated to intervene. And where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice.”

In all, 3,374 reports of sexual assault were filed in fiscal 2012, up from 3,192 in fiscal 2011. But based on anonymous surveys, the DOD estimates that for the same period, the number of active-duty servicemembers who experienced unwanted sexual contact was closer to 26,000, up from 19,000. The estimate includes 12,000 women and 14,000 men.

The DOD is required by law to release a report on sexual assaults each year.

Several members of Congress also had harsh words about the military’s record on sexual assault.

“Today’s report on the increased number of sexual assaults in the military is alarming,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a statement. “Despite pledges of zero tolerance from the military, and a number of positive steps that were taken last year by the Armed Services Committee, this report provides troubling evidence that we are going in the wrong direction”

“It is horrifying that the number of sexual assaults in our armed forces rose so dramatically last year,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in her own statement. “When 26,000 of our brave men and women are victims of sexual assault each year, we have a crisis that demands a robust and comprehensive response. We can start by fundamentally changing the way the military investigates and prosecutes these heinous crimes, and Senator Gillibrand and I will introduce legislation next week to do just that.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also called the numbers alarming.

“It is absolutely unconscionable that a fellow servicemember, the person you rely on to have your back and to be there for you, would commit such a terrible crime,” Murray said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It is simply appalling they could commit such a personal violation of their brother or sister in uniform. Even worse is the prevalence of these crimes.”

The military allows two types of sexual assault reports: restricted and unrestricted. Restricted reports allow victims to seek medical attention and other services, but remain anonymous. Those attacks are not investigated, though victims who initially choose a restricted report can change the terms of the report to unrestricted later, if they wish. Unrestricted reports go to the servicemember’s commander and can result in an investigation.

Of the 3,374 reports of sexual assault in 2012, 816 remained “restricted” at the end of the year. Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, head of the DOD’s sexual assault prevention and response office, said the percentage of victims who changed their initial reports from restricted to unrestricted was up two percentage points this year, which he said could signal increased confidence in the process.

Hagel said he has asked the service chiefs to find ways to assess commanders on the command climates they create, their implementation of sexual assault prevention programs and the way victims are treated within their units – then hold the commanders responsible.

Hagel also asked a civilian panel charged with reviewing the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults to accelerate that review and make final recommendations to him within a year of the panel’s first meeting.

“Sexual assault is a despicable crime and one of the most serious challenges facing this department,” Hagel said. “This department 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.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, said Americans should be “outraged” by the number of sexual assaults, “but no one should be surprised.”

“Today, we still have a military justice system in which commanding officers are granted the authority over the entire criminal justice process — instead of trained, impartial attorneys and judges,” Bhagwati said. “Unless Congress removes the institutional bias from the military judicial system, sexual predators will continue to wreak havoc on our armed forces, and our troops will continue to face a well-founded fear of reporting, institutional retaliation and career jeopardy.”

The Air Force in particular been under the microscope for its handling of sexual assaults, and the problem was further magnified when the chief of the service’s sexual assault prevention and response bureau was arrested on Sunday and charged with sexual battery. He has been removed from his job.

Also Tuesday, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, told reporters the service is “trying everything we can think of” to stop the problem.

“We can’t work any harder at it,” Welsh said, according to the Air Force Times. “The key for us is finding things that have more traction, that make more of a difference over time — focusing on those, letting some of the other stuff slide away and putting our resources into things that are game-changers. We’re still looking for them.” Twitter: @jhlad

Some highlights from the report* The Army had 2.3 reported sexual assaults per 1,000 servicemembers, the highest of the services. The Navy’s rate was 2.1, the Air Force’s 2.0 and the Marine Corps’ 1.7 per 1,000.

* Of the 2,558 unrestricted reports of sexual assault, 62 percent involved servicemembers as the attacker and the victim. Another 22 percent alleged a servicemember attacked a civilian.

* Of the unrestricted reports, 61 percent were rape, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual assault or sexual assault.

* Of the unrestricted reports, 88 percent of the victims were female. Slightly more than half were 20 to 24 years old, and 73 percent were E-4 or below.

* Investigations were complete and dispositions were possible against 2,661 accused attackers in fiscal 2012. Of those, the DOD could not consider action against 947 people, because the allegations were declared “unfounded,” or the offender was unknown, a civilian, a foreign national, or deserted.

* Of the 1,714 accused attackers who could be considered for action by commanders, court martial charges were preferred against 594. In those cases, the charges were dismissed against 88 people and 70 were allowed to resign or discharged instead of court martial. Cases went to trial against 302 people, and 64 were acquitted.

* There were 239 reports of sexual assault in combat areas, including 23 in Iraq and 132 in Afghanistan.

* The 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members found that 30 percent of women and 6 percent of men reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact prior to entering the military. The survey also found that 23 percent of women and 4 percent of men said they had experienced it since joining the military.

* According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, the risk for “contact sexual violence” for military and civilian women is the same, after controlling for age and marital status differences between these groups.

*Sexual assault includes rape, sexual assault, nonconsensual sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact and attempts to commit these offenses

— Jennifer Hlad

Stripes in 7

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