WASHINGTON (AP) -- They are young, often low-ranking service members out on the weekend in the late night and early morning hours. Sometimes they've been drinking. Often those who sexually assault them are in the armed forces, too.
But in the vast majority of military sexual assault cases — as many as 22,000 in 2012 — the victim chooses not to report the attack or unwanted sexual contact.
Sexual assaults across the military are a growing epidemic. In releasing a massive report Tuesday, Pentagon leaders continued to struggle with how to combat the problem and give victims enough confidence in the system to come forward.
Despite a slew of new oversight and assistance programs, troubling new numbers estimate that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, according to results of a survey. Of those, fewer than 3,400 reported the incident, and nearly 800 of them simply sought help but declined to file complaints against their alleged attackers.
The statistics emerged against a backdrop of scandals, including an ongoing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. And the report comes just days after the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
In a sharp rebuke Tuesday, President Barack Obama said he has no tolerance for the problem and said he had talked to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about it. He said any military member found guilty of sexual assault should be held accountable, prosecuted and fired.
"I don't want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way," the president said. "We're going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard."
Hagel later gave a grim assessment, saying the military "may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need."
The documents show that the number of sexual assaults reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as many as 26,000, but they never reported the incidents, officials said Tuesday.
That number is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
The statistics highlight the dismal results that military leaders have achieved in their drive to change the culture within the ranks, even as the services redoubled efforts to launch new programs to assist the victims, encourage reporting and increase commanders' vigilance.
Hagel ordered a series of steps and reviews to increase officers' accountability for what happens under their commands and to inspect workstations for objectionable materials, according to memos and documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Hagel also told military leaders to develop a method to assess commanders and hold them accountable on their ability to create a climate "of dignity and respect." He has given commanders until July 1 to visually inspect workspaces to make sure they are free of degrading materials, and military leaders have until Nov. 1 to recommend ways to assess officers and hold them accountable for their command climates.
"Sexual assault is a crime that is incompatible with military service and has no place in this department," Hagel said in a new response plan. "It is an affront to the American values we defend, and it is a stain on our honor. DoD needs to be a national leader in combating sexual assault and we will establish an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault is not tolerated, condoned or ignored."
Across Capitol Hill, lawmakers demanded the Pentagon take more aggressive steps to address the growing problem and they announced renewed efforts to pass legislation to battle the problem.
This week's sexual battery arrest of Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who headed the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit, provided a rallying point for lawmakers, who held it up Tuesday as an example of the Pentagon's failure to make progress despite the increased effort.
Members of Congress are putting together legislation to essentially strip military officers of the authority to overturn convictions for serious offenses such as sexual assault. The measure stems from congressional outrage over an Air Force officer's decision to reverse a jury verdict in a sexual assault case.
Separately, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., introduced legislation Tuesday to provide any victim with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process, prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training or its equivalent, and ensure that sexual assault response coordinators are available to help members of the National Guard and Reserve.
"Not only are we subjecting our men and women to this disgusting epidemic, but we're also failing to provide the victims with any meaningful support system once they have fallen victim to these attacks," Murray said.
The report says that of the 1.4 million active duty personnel, 6.1 percent of active duty women — or 12,100 — say they experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, a sharp increase over the 8,600 who said that in 2010. For men, the number increased from 10,700 to 13,900. A majority of the offenders were military members or Defense Department civilians or contractors, the report said.
Within the specific services, the Army showed a 16 percent decrease in the number of reported sexual assault cases, from 1,695 in 2011 to 1,423 in 2012.
The Navy said it saw a 32 percent increase, jumping from 550 in 2011 to 726 in 2012. The report said the Marines had more than a 30 percent increase in reported sexual assaults, from 333 in 2011 to 435 in 2012. And the Air Force had a 33 percent increase in reports, from 594 in 2011 to 790 in 2012.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.
Follow Lolita C. Baldor on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lbaldor
Follow Donna Cassata on Twitter: http://twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP