A Pentagon study has found a sharp increase in the number of sexual assaults in the ranks, as the military plans to put men and women in even closer contact among ground combat units in coming years.
A confidential Pentagon survey found that 26,000 service members responded that they had been sexually abused, which is defined as unwanted sexual contact. That number has increased from 19,000 in 2011.
The figures rocked the administration Tuesday, with President Obama publicly rebuking military offenders and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel appearing in the Pentagon press room to beseech commanders to take complaints seriously and root out offenders.
“We know we have a big problem,” Mr. Hagel said.
“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need,” he said. “That is unacceptable to me and the leaders of this institution.”
The survey captures thousands of cases of abuse never reported to authorities. Last year, there were 3,374 reports of unwanted contact, which can range from groping to rape.
The report parallels previous findings by the services, which have set up various organizations to try to prevent attacks, the vast majority of which are against women.
The Air Force was thrust this year into an unwanted limelight for the way its officers handled assault cases.
Two of its three-star generals have overruled courts-martial guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases, drawing fierce protests from female senators who want to rewrite military law to prohibit such unilateral action.
Last week, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinskis, who headed the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, was arrested himself on charges of groping a woman he did not know in a parking lot. The Air Force asked police in Arlington to turn over the case to military prosecutors.
At an Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, asked incredulously how Col. Krusinskis, who was drunk at the time of the suspected groping, got his job.
“His record is very good,” said Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff.
Gen. Welsh earlier testified: “Sexual assault prevention and response efforts are critically important to us. It is unacceptable that this occurs anywhere at any time in our Air Force, and we will not quit working this problem.”
At a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Mr. Obama was asked about a troubling spike in attacks on his watch.
At first, he scolded those who sexually assault colleagues. “They may consider themselves patriots, but when you engage in this kind of behavior, that’s not patriotic. It’s a crime,” the president said.
He then said he has impressed on Mr. Hagel the need to reverse the trend — now.
“One of the things that we’ve been trying to do is create a structure in which we’re starting to get accurate reporting,” Mr. Obama said. “And up and down the chain, we are seeing a process, a system of accountability and transparency so that we can root this out completely. I have directly spoken to Secretary Hagel already today in indicating to him that we’re going to have to, you know, not just step up our game. We have to exponentially step up our game to go at this thing hard.”
Unwanted sexual contact has increased steadily over the past two decades as the military has put men and women in increasingly intimate surroundings on crowded ships and at isolated forward operating bases overseas.
The sexes will get even closer in coming years. The Obama administration has lifted the ban on women serving in direct ground combat in infantry, armor and special operations units.