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Reports of sexual assaults in the military spike nearly 50 percent

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., calls for an independent, non-biased military justice system with regard to sexual assault.

New data show that reports of sexual assaults within the U.S. armed services have spiked dramatically, rising an unprecedented 46 percent during the last fiscal year, the Pentagon said Thursday.

There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints from July 2012 through June — a sharp uptick from 2,434 reports during the same reporting period the previous year. 

And the reports of sexual assault — which range from unwanted touching and groping to penetration — increased in all four branches of the armed forces and the National Guard, according to the Defense Department.

While statistics for the full fiscal year are not yet available, the Defense Department received more reports of sexual assaults in the first three quarters of Fiscal Year 2013 than in the entire run of Fiscal Year 2012.

It was not immediately clear whether the surge of complaints represented an increase in assaults, an increase in the percentage of people reporting them, or both, according to the Associated Press. 

The new data come as part of a two-day public meeting of an independent panel probing reports of an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, the wire service reported.

And the new statistics come just weeks before the Senate will review a proposal to change how the military justice system handles sexual assaults.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has spearheaded calls for a change and drawn national attention to the issue, is widely expected to press her colleagues to attach her measure as an amendment to the yearly defense policy bill.

Gillibrand on Wednesday was present at an emotional news conference along with Ariana Klay — who says she was gang-raped at the barracks in August 2010 — as well as retired military members, victims' advocates and a bipartisan group of senators who support her legislation.

"Sexual assault in the military is not new," Gillibrand said. "It has been allowed to fester in the shadows for far too long."

She added: "What we really have today is zero accountability. There is no accountability because the trust that any justice is possible has been irreparably broken under the current system where commanders hold all the cards as to whether a case will move forward or not." 

The number of sexual assault reports has increased by nearly 50 percent from July 2012 through June 2013. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

At the news conference, Ben Klay, Ariana’s husband, delivered a gut-wrenching statement in which he recounted his wife’s horrific experience and strongly condemned the military justice system.

“I read her commander’s conclusions, in writing, that she (Ariana) deserved ill treatment for wearing running shorts and makeup,” he said, as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., standing to his left, shook his head in dismay.

“I read the opinion of the command-appointed investigator, who compared rape to prostitution or marrying a rich man. As for the assault trial, it put Ariana through over fifteen hours of degrading testimony after a year of retaliation and intimidation. The closing statement of that trial was a Marine officer reading the definition of ‘c---,’ ‘slut,’ and ‘whore,’” Ben Klay said, his voice brimming with indignation and anger.

He added that when he arrived to testify, he was seated near one of the rapists — who was granted immunity so he could testify in his own defense.

As he praised his wife for enduring miserable treatment, Ben broke down crying, while Gillibrand and Paul appeared to fight back tears.

In her statement, Ariana Klay — flanked by visibly moved Gillibrand and Paul — described her painful and humiliating experience under the military justice system.

“It is impossible to expect justice in a legal system run primarily by commanders with no legitimate legal training,” she said, later adding that she doesn’t see herself as a victim or survivor but as a “leader and… an advocate for change.”

The legislation on the table would eliminate commanders from the process of judging whether serious crimes — including cases of sexual assaults — go to trial, according to the AP. It would hand decision-making authority to experienced trial lawyers who have credentials as prosecutors and hold the rank of colonel or higher.

This fiscal year also saw a large jump in the total number of service members who reported a sexual assault that occurred before they entered the military.

One senior defense official told NBC News that the Pentagon is still crunching those numbers, but said current estimates are that 9 percent to 10 percent of the total number of reports stemmed from incidents that occurred before the individual reporting entered the military — a jump from 2.1 percent during the same reporting period in Fiscal Year 2012.

The senior defense official praised this increase, saying it shows victim confidence in the Defense Department's response and support system.

In August, President Barack Obama sharply condemned the spate of sexual assaults within the military, telling a crowd of Marines Aug. 7 that the crimes and allegations threaten to undercut the military's integrity.

"It undermines what this military stands for and what the Marine Corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within our units," Obama told a crowd at Camp Pendleton.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.