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.
A day earlier, President Barack Obama delivered a similar edict to U.S. Naval Academy graduates. The message comes amid a series of widespread incidents of sexual misconduct across the armed services in recent months and a new report showing that the problem is growing.
The challenge is particularly poignant for West Point, since an Army sergeant was charged last week with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the upper New York state 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 during a cold, rainy outdoor ceremony. "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, took the opportunity to reflect on his own time in uniform and the lessons that he said must resonate as the soldiers take on the job of helping to transform the military. It was his first graduation address as defense chief. The new second lieutenants, he said, 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.
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 actually reported by military service members rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012.