WEST POINT, N.Y. — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Saturday that they must stamp out the scourge of sexual assault in the military.
Hagel’s message, following President Obama’s edict to U.S. Naval Academy graduates a day earlier, comes amid widespread reports of sexual misconduct across the armed services in recent months and a new report showing that the problem is growing. At West Point, an Army sergeant was charged earlier in the week with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the academy, including in a bathroom.
“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal — a profound betrayal — of sacred oaths and sacred trusts,” Hagel told 1,007 graduating cadets. “This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens. We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other, and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead.”
Hagel, who served in the Army in Vietnam, said the new second lieutenants must be the generation of leaders who will stop the debilitating and insidious threats of suicide, sexual assault, and drug and alcohol abuse that are hurting the all-volunteer force.
He also told the graduates that they must begin to build the future Army as the service recovers from the strains of more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Future conflicts will take on new and unfamiliar forms, he said, and the military must be ready to face them even as budget cuts force the service to curtail training and trim the number of soldiers from a wartime high of about 570,000 to 490,000.
But he said readiness will be strained by health and social problems.
Pentagon leaders have been struggling to deal with what they have come to call an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military. A Pentagon report released this month estimated that as many as 26,000 military service members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward, despite new oversight and assistance programs. The estimate was based largely on anonymous surveys.
According to the report, the number of sexual assaults reported by military service members rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. And nearly 800 of those simply sought help, declining to file complaints against their attackers.
Spurred on by furious Congress members, the Defense Department has ordered the services to come up with ways to curb the problem and better help the victims.
In the latest case, Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon is facing charges of dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women’s bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos of at least a dozen women who were naked or in various states of undress.
The women have been notified by the Army about the matter.
Baldor reported from Washington.