Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that they must build a “culture of respect” that would eliminate sexual assaults and harassment in the armed services.
Describing an Army burdened by budget cuts, sexual assaults and suicides after a decade of war, Hagel urged the graduates to devote themselves to improving military culture.
“You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces, but rather you must be the generation of leaders that stop it,” Hagel said today in a commencement address at the nation’s oldest military academy, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of New York City.
“This will require your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military and society,” he said.
Hagel’s comments came as the Pentagon has been roiled by a series of cases this month involving alleged sexual misconduct and an anonymous survey of troops found that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.
The issue touched West Point this week, when the Army disclosed that a sergeant on the academy’s staff, Michael McClendon, faces charges of videotaping female cadets without their consent while they showered.
“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal-- a profound betrayal -- of sacred oaths and sacred trusts,” Hagel said. “This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens.”
Concern about sexual misconduct in the ranks, which has simmered for decades, reached a boiling point this month after three officers assigned to programs to prevent sexual abuse were removed from their posts after allegations of wrongdoing.
The head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program faces criminal charges alleging he groped a woman in a parking lot near the Pentagon. An Army sergeant first class is under investigation for alleged “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates.” An Army lieutenant colonel was arrested on a charge that he violated a protective order concerning his wife, whom he’s divorcing.
The Army is also investigating the commander of a battalion at the nation’s primary missile-defense base for condoning sexual affairs at the remote post in Alaska, creating what subordinates called a “toxic environment.” The service was already looking into the commander at Fort Greely, Alaska, for promoting a World War II-style pinup calendar with photos of his wife and scantily clad female soldiers.
President Barack Obama has used several public appearances in recent days to express his concern about sexual assaults, including a commencement address he gave yesterday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime; they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong,” 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.”
Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam War veteran, said the next generation of leaders will have to reshape the Army for unpredictable challenges, just as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks redefined warfare that was once dominated by tanks and battleships.
“The challenge you will face is how to build on the skills honed during the past decade of war while preparing for conflicts that are likely to take on a new and unfamiliar form - - and to do this in an Army that will have fewer people and less money than it’s had in recent years,” Hagel said.
West Point, founded in 1802, trains Army cadets to become officers. The school on the banks of the Hudson River counts among its graduates former President Dwight David Eisenhower, a Republican, and Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and the only West Point graduate currently serving in the Senate.
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