The U.S. military says the number of sexual assaults reported in America's armed forces increased by eight percent in 2008, and more than half of these cases involved rape.
Defense Department officials say more than 2,900 reports of sexual assault across the 1.4 million active military members were recorded in the year ending in September 2008. The annual report is required by Congress and tracks sexual assaults of service members against service members, civilians against service members and vice versa. Incidents reported range from wrongful sexual contact to rape.
Kaye Whitley, Director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, says the majority of the victims are women and many feel uneasy about coming forward to report sexual misconduct.
"Given the fear and stigma associated with the crimes, sexual assault remains one of our nation's most underreported crimes in both the military and civilian communities," she said.
The Pentagon noted an increase of about 25 percent in reports in combat zones, including 22 cases in Afghanistan and 143 in Iraq.
Whitley points out that the rise in reported incidents does not necessarily mean sex crimes are increasing, but that victims might be less hesitant to come forward.
Whitley says the Defense Department has had success in raising awareness and education about sexual assault.
"Our goal is to strengthen the knowledge and the skills of service members, and empower them to identify and safely intervene in situations that may be leading up to a sexual assault," she said.
Whitley, an expert on counseling and human development, added that military commanders referred 38 percent of cases to trial last year - eight percent more than in 2007. But critics of the military's handling of sexual assaults say prosecutions remain too low.
Several members of Congress have harshly criticized the report, which was released earlier this week. Representative Louise Slaughter of New York issued a statement saying, "enough is enough." She argued that the statistics prove that sexual violence in the military not only persists, but has gotten worse.
Defense Department officials acknowledge that the numbers are stark and that about 80 percent of rapes go unreported, making it one of the most undocumented crimes in the military.