The Pentagon estimates that the number of sexual assaults in the military last year were the lowest since the military began surveying service members about a decade ago.
The numbers, released on Monday in a Defense Department report, show sexual assault estimates down from about 20,300 sexual assaults in 2014 to about 14,900 in 2016.
However, officials cautioned the battle to end sexual assault in the military is “far from over.”
“We do not confuse progress with success,” Elise Van Winkle, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, said. “There is no acceptable number of sexual assaults.”
While the number of reported sexual assaults decreased, officials say reporting of sexual assaults in the military increased slightly last year, with the number of victims reporting their assaults rising from about 1 in 4 to about 1 in 3.
“We see this as encouraging signs that many of our efforts are working as intended,” said Rear Adm. Ann M. Burkhardt, the director for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has pushed for changes in the way the military prosecutes sexual assaults, sharply criticized the Pentagon report and said Congress should take it as a “wake-up call.”
“While DoD touts progress, the truth is that the scourge of sexual assault in the military remains status quo,” Gillibrand said in a statement.”Today’s report disappointedly shows a flat overall reporting rate and a retaliation rate against survivors that remains at an unacceptable six out of ten for a third year in a row.This report does not reflect having the good order and discipline that is essential for our military.”
Defense officials pointed to the need for a strong military justice system to build credibility and empower victims. In about two-thirds of the reported cases, commanders had sufficient evidence to take disciplinary action.
Sexual assault is highly underreported, so the Pentagon has used anonymous surveys to track the crimes. Officials said they surveyed more than 150,000 members of the military for the 2016 report.
The report comes weeks after a massive photo scandal highlighted sexual harassment in the military. A private Facebook group called “Marines United,” which included tens of thousands of Marines and retired Marines, posted links to explicit images of military women, often with sexist, derogatory comments. Some even referenced rape and molestation.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has launched an investigation into the page, but Nathan Galbreath, the deputy director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the case likely would not influence the data released on Monday because “a lot of that came to light after a lot of our data was collected.”