WASHINGTON — The nation's three elite military colleges reported a record number of sexual assault cases this year, according to a Defense Department report issued Friday, prompting calls inside and outside the Pentagon for more aggressive steps to reverse the trend.
Military officials argued that the increase could be reflective of a changing culture that makes victims increasingly willing to report the crimes, but senior defense officials and activists said the cases are nevertheless an unacceptable blemish at institutions that groom the country's most promising leaders in uniform.
"I am concerned that we have not achieved greater progress in preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment among academy cadets and midshipmen," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote to the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. "These crimes and abhorrent behavior are incompatible with the core values we require of our armed forces' future officers."
The military academies reported 80 cases of sexual assault, a 23 percent increase from the last academic year.
All but four of the individuals who reported assaults during the 2011-12 academic year were women, a figure that senior military officials said could be misleading, noting that men are extraordinarily reticent to report having been victims of sexual assault. More than 60 percent of the assaults were reported by personnel assigned to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which had a 33 percent increase compared with the previous year.