Participation in an anonymous survey aimed at determining how big a problem sexual assault is in the Navy and Marines is lagging this year compared to past years, the Navy says.
The online survey opened Oct. 15 and closes Jan. 6.
Navy spokesman Lt. Greg Raelson could not provide exact, up-to-date response numbers, but the Navy said on its website earlier this month that it had only received about half as many responses as it got to its last survey in 2011.
In 2011, 48,000 active-duty Marines and more than 67,000 active-duty sailors completed the survey, which was an increase from the 40,000 Marines and 44,000 sailors who filled out surveys in 2009.
Getting sailors to voluntarily fill out the surveys is important to determine how wide a discrepancy there is between the number of sexual assaults that occur and those that are reported.
The Navy is trying to get more victims to come forward.
"Underreporting is a significant problem due to a variety of reasons including fear, stigma or shame," Rear Adm. Sean Buck, director of the Navy's 21st Century Sailor Program, said in a Dec. 12 blog post encouraging greater survey participation. "This complicates victim care and holding offenders accountable. I only have two ways of measuring the scope of this problem: anonymous survey data and actual reporting data."
Buck wrote that in the 2012 fiscal year, survey data showed that 10,700 sailors reported being victims of unwanted sexual contact of some sort, but only 726 formal sexual assault complaints were filed.
"That is a huge gap! What is the right number? You and I want to know, Congress wants to know, and the American public wants to know," Buck wrote. "I'm hoping that sooner than later, the survey data will match the reporting data and both numbers need to come down. Zero is the goal."
To make the survey accessible, sailors and Marines can take it from any computer, tablet or smartphone. The Navy says the survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and no identifying information is asked, aside from whether the respondent is a sailor or a Marine.
Navy officials said they're not sure why the survey responses are down this year, but they noted that the system's server was down for two weeks. In 2011, the survey was given over the summer and fall. This year's survey covered the Thanksgiving holiday and some sailors are already on their Christmas vacation.
The Navy has stepped up its mentions of the surveys online in recent weeks, but it is still largely dependent on its commanders spreading the word to the fleet.
"The participants have to want to do it. They have to provide their honest input so we can get a look to show what it takes to confront this issue," Raelson said. "The success all really just depends on the sailors and Marines worldwide."
Raelson said the Navy wanted to finish its survey before the Defense Department begins its own survey efforts. The last Defense Department survey in 2012 is what has drawn the most public attention, after it revealed about 26,000 service members may have been sexually assaulted that year.
From its own surveys, the Navy said it learned that most sexual assaults in the Navy and Marine Corps happen to 18-to-24-year-olds in social settings where alcohol is consumed. Those assaults usually occur at training schools after boot camp, or at the person's first duty station, according to the Navy.
From that information, the Navy developed training programs at its boot camp and has seen assaults decline there. The Navy has also used its survey data to support doubling the number of sexual-assault investigators and to increase the number of sexual-assault response coordinators.