U.S. military sexual assaults down as reports reach record high

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. Marine aims his weapon during a non-live fire Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) training at US Marine Corps: Marines Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, California September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sexual assault in the U.S. military has fallen, according to a Pentagon report released on Monday, even though the number of incidents reported by service members hit a record high in 2016.

Service members reported 6,172 cases of sexual assault compared with 6,082 last year, the U.S. Department of Defense said in the annual report. This was a sharp jump from 2012 when 3,604 cases were reported.

An anonymous survey found that 14,900 service members experienced some kind of sexual assault in 2016, from groping to rape, down from 20,300 in 2014, the report showed. The survey portion is conducted every two years.

Sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is largely under-reported and has come under renewed scrutiny after a scandal involving some Marines sharing nude photos of women online came to light. The U.S. military has opened an inquiry and senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill have denounced the violations.

"We see the increase in rates of reporting as an indicator of a continued trust in our response and support systems," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, performing the duties of assistant secretary of defence for readiness, at a press conference.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, in a statement, questioned if there was actual progress.

"The truth is that the scourge of sexual assault in the military remains status quo," she said.

"Today's report disappointedly shows a flat overall reporting rate and a retaliation rate against survivors that remains at an unacceptable six out of 10 for a third year in a row."

Fifty-eight percent of victims experienced reprisals or retaliation for reporting sexual assault, the report showed.

"The fight to end sexual assault, sexual harassment and related misconduct in the military is far from over," said Van Winkle. "We do not confuse progress with success."

Navy Rear Admiral Ann Burkhardt, director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told reporters that more work needed to be done.

The Marine Corps has been rattled by a scandal involving a private Facebook group called "Marines United" and its surreptitious distribution of explicit images of women in the armed forces, often with obscene, misogynist commentary.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Richard Chang)

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