EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. - People in El Paso County expressed mixed reaction Thursday to a Pentagon report that accusations of military sexual assaults rose 50 percent last year.
During a news conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the increase is less a sign that more assaults are happening and more a sign that victims are less fearful of retaliation or shame if they report being assaulted.
Hagel said the effort to improve how victims are treated is working, though he emphasized that more improvement is needed. In addition, he said, more commanders are taking stronger action against soldiers involved in assault cases and prosecuting them more often.
However, Erica Laue, a social worker at the assault advocacy agency TESSA, said she's waiting for a report on anonymously-reported sexual assaults to determine the military's true level of progress in the matter.
"I don't know if that number has also increased," she said. "If that number has, then we're seeing an increase in sexual assaults -- and that is a bad thing. If that number has decreased, then it's a clear sign that more victims are reporting. Overall, that's good."
Laue said the military's new "bystander intervention" training is the best way to reduce sexual assaults. Fort Carson revealed the training last month, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It encourages anyone who sees, hears or knows about an assault to report it immediately.
"I like it because it's perfect with the buddy system the military already has," she said.
Two El Paso County residents shared their opinions about the matter.
"I have friends and my in-laws (who) are all in the military," said Danielle Nordeen. "(The report) surprises me in a way because it makes me think there's even more sexual assaults happening."
Earl Ellefson said he understands the difficulty in investigating and prosecuting such cases.
"You've got to make sure (an assault) did happen, because it can be both ways," he said. "The person could be accused wrong or right. It's hard to say."