Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered all members of the Defense Department to re-double their efforts to aggressively work to prevent and respond to sexual assaults across the military.
In a memo released Thursday, Mattis said that officers and commanders must act as substitute parents for their young troops, charging leaders to "use their authority and force of personality to prevent and eliminate sexual assault from our ranks." His memo comes amid revelations that reports of sexual assaults across the military jumped by nearly 10 percent in 2017.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis said Thursday that sexual assault is a cancer in the ranks and that he discussed the issue with senior leaders.
"I expect every member of the Department to use their initiative and courage to model ethical and legal behavior in the workplace, at home, and online," Mattis said in the memo dated last week. "Sexual assault is one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military."
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the overall increase in sexual assaults across the services in 2017 was fueled by a roughly 15-percent surge in reports in the Marine Corps. Officials said the Air Force and Navy had increases of about 9 percent and the Army about 8 percent.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss figures not yet publicly released.
Mattis appeared to pin part of the problem on the youth of his force -- emphasizing the parental role that officers can play as they lead their troops.
"While casualties on the battlefield are understood to be consistent with our military duties, I accept no casualties due to sexual assault within our ranks," Mattis said in his memo, invoking the Latin phrase meaning "in the place of a parent. "Military leaders are to be zealous in carrying out 'in loco parentis' responsibilities and ridding our ranks of such illegal, abhorrent behavior."
The increase in sexual assault reports came in a year that saw a massive online nude-photo sharing scandal rock the services, triggering greater awareness of sexual harassment and other similar complaints.
The Marines were at the center of last year's online investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and launched a large public campaign to raise awareness of inappropriate behavior and beef up enforcement of social media rules and conduct.
Defense officials have consistently argued that an increase in reported assaults is a positive trend, because it's a highly underreported crime, both in the military and in society as a whole. Greater reporting, they argue, shows there is more confidence in the reporting system and greater comfort with the support for victims.
It's unclear, however, if the increased reports in 2017 actually represent a growing problem or if victims were just more willing to come forward. It's also not clear if any of the added attention resulting from the online scandal prompted victims to file reports.