Some 36,000 soldiers say in confidential survey they experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic surge over the roughly 20,000 who said that in a similar 2018 survey, AP reports.

Reports of sexual assaults across the US military have jumped by 13 percent last year, driven by significant increases in the Army and the Navy as bases began to move out of pandemic restrictions and public venues reopened, The Associated Press news agency has learned.

Mirroring the increase in those reports is the disclosure that close to 36,000 service members said in a confidential survey that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic increase over the roughly 20,000 who said that in a similar 2018 survey, US defence and military officials said.

According to officials, the overall increase is largely fuelled by a nearly 26 percent jump in reports involving Army soldiers.

It’s the largest increase for that service since 2013 when such reports went up by 51 percent.

The increase in Navy reports was about 9 percent, the Air Force was a bit more than 2 percent and the Marine Corps was less than 2 percent, said the officials.

The big increase is especially troublesome for the Army, which is struggling to meet its recruiting goals and is expected to miss the target by at least 10,000 — or by anywhere from 18 percent to 25 percent — at the end of September.

Army leaders have acknowledged that it is important for parents and others who influence recruits to feel comfortable that their son or daughter is safe and will be taken care of in the service.

Covid-19 and the pandemic restrictions make year-to-year comparisons complicated.

Officials said they do not have enough data to determine if — or how much — the pandemic played a role in the higher reporting and survey numbers.

Less success in reducing assaults

The Pentagon and the military services have long struggled to come up with programmes to prevent sexual assaults and encourage reporting.

While the military has made inroads in making it easier and safer for service members to come forward, it has had far less success reducing the assaults, which have increased nearly every year since 2006.

The double-digit overall increase comes after two years of relatively small increases in reports filed by or involving service members.

In the budget year ending September 2020, reports of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact edged up by one percent, as much of the world largely shut down due to the pandemic.

The previous year, reports went up by about three percent — a substantial improvement over 2018, which also saw a 13 percent increase.

The 2018 survey found that more than 20,000 service members said they experienced some type of sexual assault, but only one-third of them filed a formal report.

Officials familiar with the findings said survey respondents also reported increases in unhappiness in the workplace, as well as more sexual harassment, which can sometimes lead to other sexual assaults or misconduct.

Defence officials have argued that an increase in reported assaults is a positive trend because so many people are reluctant to report it, both in the military and in society as a whole.

The Pentagon has been under persistent pressure from Congress to improve prevention and prosecutions. Lawmakers acted late last year to take some prosecution authority out of the hands of commanders and instead use independent prosecutors.