The number of women who faced unwanted sexual contact jumped last year at the Air Force Academy, following a trend that included West Point and Annapolis.
The jump was documented in a new Pentagon report released Thursday.
For the academic year that ended in 2018, 15 percent of academy women reported unwanted sexual contact, up from 11 percent in 2016, the most recent year surveyed.
While the anonymous survey showed more incidents, fewer incidents are being reported to authorities. At Air Force, the number of reported sexual assaults fell to 29 in 2018, down from 33 in the prior academic year.
Elise Van Winkle, the Pentagon's acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness, said the issue at Air Force is mirrored across the nation's three top military academies, with surveys showing more incidents occurring behind the scenes and no increase in the number of incidents being reported.
"We find these results to be frustrating, disheartening and unacceptable," Van Winkle said in a Thursday morning phone call ahead of the report's release.
The Pentagon in 2016 sat down service academy leaders and demanded changes to address sexual assault. But most of those programs didn't take hold until last summer, and leaders say the results of the changes won't likely be known until 2020.
The challenge is large. At Air Force, 46 percent of female cadets reported suffering some form of sexual harassment. Just 13 percent of Air Force men reported harassment.
Those facing harassment are for the most part suffering in silence. Academy leaders received a single report of sexual harassment on the campus last year and even that complaint was dubbed "informal."
The Pentagon began tracking sexual assault at service academies amid the 2003 sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy. For most of the ensuing years, the Pentagon took pride in rising reports of sexual assault, saying that more victims coming forward equated to more confidence in leadership.
But in the latest report, just 92 cadets at all service academies reported sexual assaults out of an estimated 750 who were victimized. The number of victims has spiked since the last report, which found an estimated 500 cadets had suffered some form of unwanted sexual contact, with the same number of cadets — 92 — actually reporting their incidents.
At Air Force, the Pentagon estimated that 90 percent of sexual assaults went unreported. The report released Thursday says that reporting rates at the academy have consistently declined over the past six years.
"The findings from this year's assessment are unacceptable but they will shape our way forward," Van Winkle said.
Air Force spent the past year rebuilding its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office after an internal review found it had bungled care for victims and was "derelict" in the performance of its duties.
With new leadership and a new staff, the rebuilt office didn't hit its stride until after the Pentagon survey.
The Pentagon report said the office was at work at rebuilding its "credibility" at the school.
Air Force has taken steps in recent months to examine sexual assault in ways unmatched by its military peers. Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria hosted an event at the school for sexual assault survivors, bringing in former cadets who were victimized to glean information on how to prevent future assaults.
The academy also rolled out a new program to encourage sexual assault reforms by easing punishments for regulatory violations that may have accompanied an attack.
Nearly two-thirds of incidents at the school were accompanied by alcohol use. Overindulging is frowned upon and imbibing in the dorms is forbidden, making some victims reluctant to come forward when their attack coincided with a night of drinking.
"A significant barrier to reporting a sexual assault was concern of punishment for collateral misconduct," the Pentagon said in its report.
The Pentagon says it is studying other methods to encourage cadets to report attacks.
"Our cadets and midshipmen must be role models if they're to lead the world's finest fighting force," James Stewart, the Pentagon's personnel boss, said in a statement. "This year's report demonstrates that there is more work to be done to meet this goal."
Those efforts won't be enough to quiet critics, including retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, who heads Protect Our Defenders. The non-profit has called for a crackdown on sexual assault and tougher laws to target offenders.
"It is time for the President and Congress to replace military leadership who have failed to stem the tide of sexual assault and harassment," Christensen said in an email Thursday. "Holding senior leaders responsible will send a clear message that not only can the academies do better, but they must do better."