WIESBADEN, Germany -- Reports of sexual assaults in U.S. Army Europe jumped 131 percent in fiscal 2013.
That sounds bad, but Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell Jr., who heads the command, sees it as a sign of progress in the service's fight to put a stop to sexual violence in the ranks.
The increase indicates that victims "are developing trust and confidence in their leaders that something will happen if they report it," Campbell said Tuesday as he opened a two-day sexual assault summit with senior Army officers and enlisted leaders from across the Continent. "That's a good-news story."
While such a view is counterintuitive, other experts at the meeting agreed.
A reporter from Stars and Stripes attended the first day of the summit but agreed not to identify speakers or participants in open sessions so as to encourage openness among those attending. Interviews with a small number of attendees and presenters were conducted outside the main sessions.
The summit was the second that Campbell has convened in as many years as his command wrestles with myriad issues surrounding sexual assault. Last year's came after a Defense Department report revealed that a majority of rapes and similar offenses were going unreported. That led some in Congress to call for commanders to be stripped of the authority to investigate and prosecute such crimes. The lack of reporting, critics said, indicated that victims didn't have confidence in their chain of command to take care of them and prosecute perpetrators.
Campbell said the Army has improved on that point, "but we've still got work to do in the trenches, where the rubber meets the road."
While leadership now understands the significance of the problem, lower-ranking soldiers are sometimes loath to confront their peers or turn them in for sexual offenses, Campbell said. One staff sergeant he spoke with before the summit told the general, "You're still classified as a Blue Falcon" -- a slang term meaning backstabber -- "if you report it or intervene," Campbell said.
Nevertheless, one senior civilian who deals directly with the Army's program to combat sexual harassment and assaults said military leaders in the Pentagon have a sense that things are "getting better" because of the increased reporting.
At some point, officials acknowledged, the number of reports -- along with actual assaults -- will have to decrease, or the president and Congress will lose faith in the military's ability to deal with the problem.
"The White House has been relatively quiet, especially on the topic of the disposition of sexual assault -- of leaving it with the commanders or taking away from the commanders," one official said. "That's been the big controversy on the Hill."
Senators have lined up on opposite sides of the aisle on the issue. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri wants commanders to retain the authority to deal with it; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wants commanders stripped of that power.
A Pentagon report due Dec. 1 to President Barack Obama will probably provoke the White House to weigh in, the official said.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, defense think tank Rand Corp. wrapped up a DoD-wide survey for another report on sexual assault, which many predict will show an increase in the number of sexual assault reports in all the services.
Media coverage of the May 2013 report, which estimated that 26,000 assaults occurred across the military in 2012, created a "perception that it [sexual assault] happens more in the military than in the general public," said Andrea Quijada, executive director of the Media Literacy Project, who spoke at the USAREUR summit. However, she said she did not know if that were true.
Still, experts in the Army's sexual assault prevention community are looking forward to the results of the Rand study because it will, for the first time, provide a breakdown of the types of offenses, such as rape and unwanted touching, that occur.
That will make it hard to compare to previous studies, said Russel W. Strand, chief of the U.S. Army military police school's Behavioral Sciences Education and Training Division, but it will likely provide a more reliable "base line" indicating just how prevalent various sexual offenses are.
Strand said he and others in the sexual-assault-prevention community are concerned that the expected increase in reports could be used as an argument for stripping commanders of the authority to deal with the issue before they have a clearer picture of whether the military's efforts are working.
"These things take time."