Reports of military sex assault up sharply

Reports of sexual assault in the U.S. military are up 50 percent, according to the latest annual figures reported on Thursday by the Pentagon.

The Defense Department said the sharp increase follows steps over the past year to encourage alleged victims to come forward to report such abuse and reflects more confidence in how the military responds. There is no indication the spike was due to an overall increase in actual incidents, officials said.

There were 5,061 sex assault reports in the 2013 fiscal year, which ended last September 30. That represents a 50% increase from the same period the year before.

Although the Pentagon has taken steps to address the matter following the release of troubling statistics last spring, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said officials still believe the issue is under-reported.

"The best way to combat this crime is to prevent it," Hagel said, adding the armed forces must "live our core values and we must each be responsible for our actions."

Hagel said victims of sexual assault are "not only human beings, they are fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines. We cannot let them down."

The issue received heightened attention from the Obama administration and Congress after last year's report also showed a startling jump in reported sex assault claims.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations, said the figures continue to indicate a serious problem.

"The rise in reporting is encouraging, possibly signaling that legislative and military changes from recent years are having a positive impact," she said in a statement.

But Tsongas added better reporting and other steps to address the issue "does not obviate the simple fact that these heinous crimes continue to occur at an alarming rate, to both men and women."

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