Since 2012, reports of sexual assaults in the military have risen 50 percent. Military sexual assaults have peppered headlines this year and inspired endless debates and discussions about how the military should respond to and handle incidents of sexual assault.

Politico reported that over 5,000 incidents of military sexual assault were reported in fiscal 2013, which ended on September 30, compared to the 3,374 reported the preceding year. There is contention about whether this increase indicates an increase in individually reported cases or an increase of incidents as a whole.

The Marine Corps. saw an 86 percent increase in reported assaults, the largest increase among the branches. Reports in the Air Force increased 45 percent, Navy reports increased 46 percent, and the Army had a 46 percent increase in sexual assault reports. Many speculate that the increase is due to more assault victims coming forward to report incidents to authorities.

Defense officials said that feedback from surveys, focus groups, and meetings with service members suggest that sexual assault incidents of any type, from harassment to violent assaults, have been steady in number. The Navy and Marine Corps. are under the same sexual assault program, and program director Jill Loftus said that “we are not seeing a perception that the number of incidents are going up.”     

Others argue that the increase in reports indicated that incidents themselves are increasing. From 2010 to 2012, there was a sharp increase in military sexual assault incidents from 19,300 in 2010 to 26,000 two years later. An alarmingly large portion of women in the military were reported to have been victims of sexual assault.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, up to 48 percent of women have been sexually assaulted during their service. Eighty percent of female veterans have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. Such attacks and mistreatment make female veterans nine-times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and increase their chances of abusing drugs and alcohol.

Until military sexual assaults caught widespread attention, the military largely overlooked the problem as a majority of the accused went unpunished for their crimes. PolicyMic reported in March that 97.5 percent of military rapes go unpunished.

One instance of this long-running injustice is the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was accused of groping a female service member. He was convicted during a military court martial and received a dishonorable discharge. However, commanding officer Lt. General Craig Franklin threw out Wilkerson’s conviction and reinstated him to active-duty service.

This sort of injustice has discouraged victims from coming forward about their attacks, but it has also caught the attention of the U.S. Senate. Outraged by the case, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) demanded a military investigation into sexual assaults which inspired proposals on how the military should address these crimes within its ranks.

Last week, President Obama signed a defense bill containing a provision designed to crack down on military sexual assaults. According to the provision, commanders can no longer overturn jury trial verdicts (similar to the Wilkerson case), there are no statutes of limitations on rape and sexual assault for court martials, and it is now a punishable crime to retaliate against victims who report assault.   

Days prior to signing the bill, Obama said “if I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world.”

Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.