Fort Bragg leaders say recent Pentagon data ranking the installation among the highest for reports of sexual assaults reflect in part their efforts to combat the crimes for which they have zero tolerance.
Still, advocates for veterans and sexual assault victims believe the military needs to do more to address the problem, including how cases are handled at installations and the reluctance of some victims to report assaults.
Fort Bragg, as the nation's largest military installation, has been at the forefront of the Department of Defense's efforts to prevent sexual assault for years, officials said. Now, comprehensive sexual assault data from all installations, released for the first time, is bringing the issue into focus.
Even as many local troops have been deployed around the world to help fight the nation's enemies, the data shows the on-going fight against sexual assault in the military that is taking place on the home front.
And for the first time, it reveals installation-specific data. In past years, the Pentagon had instead released aggregated numbers for each branch of service.
The latest data shows four years worth of reports across more than 200 installations, both large and small, from 2013 to 2016.
At Fort Bragg and Pope Field, the Pentagon says 156 sexual assault reports were made in last year. The number of reports for the installation has risen each of the past four years.
Leaders on Fort Bragg said the no one was happy with those results.
"Let me say that sexual harassment and sexual assault are abhorrent to me and completely unacceptable to our Army," said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commanding general of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps. "This behavior equates to soldier on soldier fratricide that negatively impacts our readiness and we won't rest until we completely change our Army's culture."
The data -- released without analysis by the Department of Defense -- includes a wide range of allegations outside of domestic abuse, to include rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy and aggravated and abusive sexual contact, as well as attempts to commit those crimes.
The data show that Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia has had the highest number of sexual assault reports in recent years, with 270 in 2016.
Other installations with high numbers last year include Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, with 211; Fort Hood, Texas, with 199; Naval Base San Diego, California, with 187; Camp Lejeune with 169; Camp Pendleton, California, with 157; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, with 153.
U.S. troops stationed in South Korea reported 163 assaults, according to the data. And those deployed to combat areas reported 125 assaults.
Overall, the data show sexual assault reports across the military have risen over each of the past four years, with a total of 6,153 reports across all installations in 2016.
Military leaders cautioned against using the data to compare installations.
The numbers don't equate to a sexual assault crime rate, officials said. They include all reports made at an installation, regardless of the date or location of the alleged crime, according to the Pentagon. The numbers don't necessarily indicate that crimes were committed.
At Fort Bragg, officials said the data do not accurately show the number of sexual assaults alleged to have been committed on post or involving local troops in recent years.
Col. Joe Scrocca, a spokesman for the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, said slightly more than half of the reports in 2016 were alleged crimes that took place in previous years. He said the numbers reflect substantiated and unsubstantiated reports and civilian assaults against service members.
Scrocca said the Army and Fort Bragg have a zero-tolerance policy for any form of sexual assault or harassment, which degrades mission readiness and the Army's ability to work effectively as a team.
That echoes remarks made by leaders in recent years at an annual summit hosted on Fort Bragg by Womack Army Medical Center.
The Special Victims Summit is among the ways Fort Bragg leaders are attempting to get ahead of the issue of sexual assault in the military. It involves military and civilian leaders, medical personnel, law enforcement, victim advocates and behavioral health providers.
At the summit in September, the then-deputy commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, Maj. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, said everyone on the post regardless of rank has the responsibility to protect fellow service members from such crimes.
LaCamera, who was acting senior commander of Fort Bragg at the time, made attendance at the summit mandatory for command teams and expanded the event by an additional day for military personnel.
At the time of the summit, officials said there were more than 200 open sexual assault cases involving Fort Bragg troops.
LaCamera said preventing those crimes was a matter of national security and key to maintaining readiness to deploy on short notice.
Fort Bragg troops have participated in pilot programs that could be expanded within the military. In March, officials announced the beginning of a nearly $3 million study aimed at creating one such program, with a focus on sexual assault and high-risk alcohol use on installations.
The study is a collaboration between Womack, Brown University, Rhode Island Hospital and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Other programs on Fort Bragg are meant to reinforce prevention, including theatrical education that has been led by a Broadway actress and interactive training meant to go beyond the typical Army PowerPoint presentation.
Other efforts have focused on leaders at Fort Bragg, including a monthly sexual assault review board where commanders at every level are expected to update the garrison commander on the status of sexual assault cases in their units.
Scrocca said Army leaders have made it easier for victims to report sexual assaults and have made efforts to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect.
Fort Bragg has more than 150 sexual harassment/assault response and prevention counselors on post, he said. They lead regular training for leaders and soldiers.
"While even a single incident is too many, the installation numbers indicate that our awareness, education and prevention programs are starting to have a positive effect," he said.
The general said the actual number of assaults alleged has remained flat from 2015 to 2016, despite what the Pentagon data appear to show.
"While the number of reports steadily increased each year, more than half of those reports were for incidents that occurred in previous years," Townsend said. "This suggests that while the actual number of incidents has not improved significantly, soldiers understand how to report incidents and feel more comfortable and confident making reports than they did in previous years."
Townsend said the military has led the nation in addressing sexual assault and harassment.
He said recent accusations against Hollywood actors and political leaders show that the rest of the nation is also beginning to take the issue more seriously.
"What you see in the media recently is this issue now starting to be addressed by society at large," Townsend said. "For the last four to five years, the Army has worked extremely hard to educate and train the force. We've established training for our soldiers to prevent incidents, training to ensure victims know how to report incidents should they occur, and trained our leaders so they know what is expected of them in addressing sexual assault and harassment in their ranks. Soldiers know that sexual assault will not be tolerated in their Army."
A broader problem
While the installation data provides a snapshot of the military's efforts to combat sexual assault, military officials said the data does not show the full extent of the problem.
Based on confidential surveys, the Pentagon estimates only about 32 percent of service members who experienced a sexual assault reported it.
That's up from an estimated 15 percent prior to 2014.
The increased scrutiny of sexual assault data comes as the number of women in the nation's military ranks continues to grow.
Women are the fastest growing segment of military and veteran populations, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.
An annual survey of more than 4,000 members of IAVA looked into the military's handling of sexual assaults.
The survey, released in October, found that 35 percent of female respondents and 1 percent of male respondents reported being a survivor of military sexual assault.
Of those who reported being a victim, fewer than half -- about 40 percent of women and 28 percent of men -- said they reported the crime.
Among those who did report the crime, 71 percent of women and 64 percent of men said they experienced retaliation.
The IAVA survey found that only 19 percent of women and 33 percent of men believe the Department of Defense is effectively addressing sexual assault in the military.
After the Pentagon released the installation data, other organizations also called into question the military's handling of sexual assault.
The Service Women's Action Network, a national advocacy organization, said the data show that despite major efforts, reports of sexual violence have risen or remained relatively fixed at the nation's major installations.
Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of government relations at SWAN, said the latest data were "an indication of the continued failure of the military services in their critical task of preventing sexual assault to begin with."
A day before the Pentagon released the sexual assault data, SWAN officials stood by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York as she re-introduced a bill that would reform how the military handles sexual assault cases. She has pushed the Military Justice Improvement Act every year since 2013 to no avail.
The bill would remove authority over sexual assault cases from unit commanders to allow military prosecutors to decide whether cases go to trial.
Gillibrand said the bill would address inaction on the part of Congress.
"In recent months, scandal after scandal has shown that despite years of efforts and small reforms, sexual assault and harassment remain pervasive in the military," her office said in a statement. "Top officials in the military continue to assert that they alone will fix this, but little has changed."
"Congress should finally be out of excuses to continue protecting the status quo that harms our service members and protects predators," Gillibrand said. "How much longer do we need to wait for Congress to do the right thing when the facts about sexual assault in the military remain the same?"
Gillibrand is a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over much of the military, including pay, health care and education benefits, Morale, Welfare and Recreation services, and military justice.
The subcommittee is led by North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis.
After the data was released, Tillis pledged to work with colleagues in the subcommittee to address the issue of sexual assault in the military and ensure "rigorous oversight."
"Even one assault is one too many," Tillis said. "Our men and women in uniform should not have to live in fear of harassment or assault from anyone, particularly their fellow service members, and it is vital that charges of sexual assault are taken very seriously by the chain of command, investigated and prosecuted aggressively."
--This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.