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U.S. military sexual assault reports jumped 50 percent last year

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WASHINGTON - Reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military jumped 50 percent last year amid a high-profile crackdown on the problem, the Pentagon said on Thursday, a spike officials hailed as a sign victims are increasingly confident the crime will be prosecuted.

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Despite the increased focus on the problem over the past year, however, the military has continued to face embarrassing incidents in which officers have been accused of tolerating sexual misconduct rather than fighting it.

The annual study found that reported sexual assaults in the military jumped 50 percent to 5,061 in the 2013 fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, a figure in line with preliminary numbers released by the Pentagon in December.

By comparison, the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office said 3,374 cases of sexual assault were reported in the 2012 fiscal year.

"The department assesses the unprecedented increase in reports received in FY 13 (Fiscal Year 2013) as consistent with a growing level of confidence in the DoD (Defense Department) response system," the report said.

Senator Claire McCaskill, who worked on legislation to develop a more forceful military response to the problem over the past year, said the increased reporting was encouraging.

"We know that the majority of survivors, both military and civilian, choose not to report their assaults," the Missouri Democrat, a former sex crimes prosecutor, said in a statement. "This data suggests that the number of brave men and women in uniform choosing to pursue justice is increasing."

Sexual assault is a hugely underreported crime, and a separate military survey conducted in 2012 concluded there were some 26,000 sex crimes in the military that year, from rape to abusive sexual contact.

The survey is conducted every two years, so there was no survey with the annual report this year to use as a basis for projecting total sex crimes in the services.

The figures last year provoked outrage and led to a broad effort across the military to crack down on sex crimes and sexual misbehavior. But despite the push, a number of high-profile officers are being investigated for their actions.

The Navy said last week it was investigating allegations of misconduct by Captain Gregory McWherter, the former commanding officer of the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision aerobatics flight squadron.

McWherter is accused of tolerating an inappropriate work environment in the Blue Angels two years ago, allowing or in some cases encouraging "lewd speech, inappropriate comments, and sexually explicit humor," the Navy said.

Major General Michael Harrison also was recently disciplined for failing to take appropriate action in response to sexual assault allegations while he was commander of U.S. Army forces in Japan. He had been suspended from the post last June when the allegations were made.

Congress has taken action to force the military to tighten its response to the problem, but it ultimately rejected a push by many lawmakers to take decisions about prosecution of sex crimes out of the hands of the victims' military commanders.

The new report prompted renewed calls for the military to remove responsibility for prosecution of the crime from the victims' chain of command.

"The persistent stream of reports suggests the military is either unwilling or incapable of solving this crisis, and further underscores the need for strong action from our elected leaders," said Nancy Parrish, head of the Protect Our Defenders advocacy group.

Army General Martin Dempsey, the highest-ranking military officer, told defense bloggers earlier this month that the department had a limited window of opportunity to demonstrate it could deal with the sexual assault problem.

"If it occurs that after a period of very intense and renewed emphasis on this that we can't solve it, I'm not going to fight it being taken away from us," the military's press service quoted him as saying.

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