WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled four new initiatives to combat sexual assault in the U.S. military on Thursday as the Pentagon released a preliminary report for 2014 showing signs of improvement after a three-year crackdown on the crime.
The report found a drop in overall cases of sexual assault and a greater willingness by troops to report assaults to authorities. But it also voiced concern that more than 60 percent of sexual assault victims believe they have been subjected to retaliation for reporting the crime.
As a result, Hagel included an effort to fight retaliation as one of the four new directives he proposed to help carry forward the fight against sexual assault in the military.
"While the results and initiatives described in this report demonstrate signs of progress in the fight against sexual assault in our military, I recognize there is more work to do," Hagel said in a cover letter to President Barack Obama.
Cases of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in the U.S. military fell to an estimated 19,000 in 2014, a drop of more than 25 percent from the estimated 26,000 two years ago, according to the results of an anonymous biennial Pentagon survey included in the report.
At the same time, sexual assaults actually reported to the authorities rose 8 percent to 5,983 during the 2014 fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, compared to 5,518 the previous year, the report said.
The findings come amid a Pentagon crackdown on sexual assault in the military after a spate of high-profile incidents that sparked public outrage and demands for action by the president and Congress.
U.S. lawmakers have passed a series of measures to change the way sexual assault cases are investigated and prosecuted through the military justice system, including stripping commanders of some power to change court martial jury verdicts.
"As a result of these substantial reforms, the military is better able to investigate and try sexual assault offenses in a fair, just and consistent manner with greater sensitivity to the rights and privacy interests of crime victims," Pentagon general counsel Stephen Preston said in an appendix to the report.
Preston said the Pentagon continued to oppose any effort to remove prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, which is advocated by some lawmakers.