By BROCK VERGAKIS
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The number of sexual assaults reported to the Navy has grown by about 50 percent in the past year, which Navy officials said Wednesday is a sign that a growing number of sailors feel more comfortable reporting an assault and believe something will be done about it when they do.
The Navy said it is on pace to end the 2013 fiscal year later this month with about 1,100 reports of sexual assault. That's up from the 726 sexual assaults reported in the previous fiscal year.
Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the Navy's top sexual assault prevention and response officer, told reporters at Naval Station Norfolk that the increase was something Navy officials had expected as they ramped up efforts to let sailors know that sexual assaults are being treated seriously. They also noted there are plenty of resources available to victims.
A Defense Department report released in May estimated that across all military branches, 26,000 service members had been sexually assaulted in the previous year. At the same time, only 2,949 sexual assaults were officially reported throughout the Defense Department, according to the report.
The survey said there were a variety of reasons military members didn't want to report a sexual assault to a military authority. The belief that nothing would be done if an assault were reported was one of the most common responses among respondents.
Those estimates and a string of high profile sexual assault cases involving the military this year helped spur a renewed call to action in Washington to combat sexual assaults, which Navy leaders have repeatedly said is a priority.
The Navy has undergone an aggressive sexual assault awareness and prevention campaign over the past several years, and recently announced changes to the way it sells alcohol on base in an effort to curb behaviors that can lead to sexual assaults.
"We would like that needle to move tomorrow, or this afternoon. But the sense is you need to be able to allow some programs to be put into place to mature, to be talked about and to be acted upon," Buck said
Much of the Navy's efforts focus on educational campaigns, letting sailors know what constitutes a sexual assault and where victims can report an assault and find resources they need. That's led to more sailors reporting sexual assaults, which Buck notes is a good thing as the Navy works to eradicate it from the fleet.
"What we're trying to do is close that gap between anonymous surveys where sailors say that they've been victims of sexual assault in their past to those sailors that actually come forward to report," Buck said. "The initial goal is to close that gap to where the number of reports actually equal the number of survey responses and then ultimately to have both of those numbers decline down to zero."
The Navy released updated figures after Buck spoke at an annual training conference for about 150 of the Navy's sexual assault response coordinators. Those coordinators, mostly civilians, are on bases worldwide to ensure victims have access to medical treatment, counseling, legal advice and other support services.
In the past fiscal year, coordinators also trained more than 2,000 commanders on their roles and responsibilities within the Navy's sexual assault prevention and response program.
Buck said the feedback from sailors is very positive.
"They're appreciative of the attention from senior leadership and they're also very aware of how broad the topic is being discussed in the Navy now, from the workplace all the way up to the Pentagon, all the way up to Capitol Hill," Buck said.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis