Obama, Hagel tell young officers: You must lead in ridding US military of sexual assault

Sexual assault is growing in the US military, addressed by President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel in speeches to young officers. 'This scourge must be stamped out,' Hagel said.

Mike Segar/REUTERS
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel presents diplomas to graduating cadets during ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Saturday.

Speaking to the nation’s future military leaders this Memorial Day weekend, their Commander in Chief and Secretary of Defense made a point of addressing an important issue in today’s armed services: sexual assault.

"This scourge must be stamped out," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the graduating cadets and newly-minted second lieutenants during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, Saturday.

"We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens," Secretary Hagel said. "We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead."

A day earlier, President Obama had the same message for Navy ensigns and Marine Corps second lieutenants graduating at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong,” Mr. Obama said. “That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth.”

“We need your Honor – that inner compass that guides you, not when the path is easy and obvious, but when it's hard and uncertain; that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong,” the President told the graduates. “Live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability.”

In both speeches, other issues were covered and in some instances emphasized.

“Even as we’ve decimated the al Qaeda leadership, we still face threats from al Qaeda affiliates and from individuals caught up in its ideology,” Obama said, echoing his speech at the National Defense University a day earlier. “Even as we move beyond deploying large ground armies abroad, we still need to conduct precise, targeted strikes against terrorists before they kill our citizens. And even as we stay vigilant in the face of terrorism and stay true to our Constitution and our values, we need to stay ready for the full range of threats – from nations seeking weapons of mass destruction to cyber criminals seeking to unleash weapons of mass destruction.”

As a former US Army infantryman twice wounded in Vietnam, Hagel said, “I learned that combat is a furnace that can consume you, or it can forge you into something better and stronger than you were before.”

But within the US military itself, sexual assault and other sexual misconduct is seen as one of today’s major problems, one just as likely to draw public attention as drone strikes and the Guantánamo Bay military prison.

A study released by the Defense Department earlier this month estimated that reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year. Another recent report found that the number of sexual assaults reported at West Point, Annapolis, and the other service academies soared in recent years, from 25 in the 2008-09 academic year to 65 in 2010-11 and 80 in 2011-12.

In a report Saturday, CNN listed the most recent instances of sexual misconduct by those in positions of authority:

• This week, the Army said it had suspended Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, the top general at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, after allegations of adultery and assault.

• Last week, a US Army sergeant first class stationed at West Point was charged with covertly shooting videos of female cadets in showers and latrines.

• This month, an Army sergeant first class assigned to the sexual assault prevention unit at Fort Hood, Texas, came under investigation for alleged sexual assault, pandering, abusive sexual contact, and maltreatment of subordinates. He has been relieved of duty while investigators look into the allegations.

• Also this month, an Air Force officer who managed an assault prevention unit, was charged with sexual battery, accused of grabbing a woman and groping her buttocks and breasts in an Arlington County parking lot near his Washington office.

In his speech to West Point cadets Saturday, Hagel referenced serious challenges to military life and mission today – alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, mental illness, sexual harassment, and sexual assault – saying, “You’ll need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces, but rather, you must be the generation of leaders that stop it.”

“This will require your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military in society,” he said.

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