Sexual Abuse in the Military: Fresh Faces, Fresh Leadership – Hopefully a New Culture

USAFA Class of 2013 Graduation

In the wake of a string of very public and very embarrassing sexual misconduct incidents in the military and after the release of damning statistics on the extent and pervasiveness of such misconduct, the President and the Pentagon announced a number of initiatives to eradicate sexual assault in the military.

At a press conference three weeks ago, President Obama said:

I don’t want just more speeches or, you know, awareness programs or training — but ultimately folks look the other way…[When] we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable; prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It’s not acceptable.

Well, in commencement addresses at graduation ceremonies at our nation’s military academies, the President and others have once again spoken about this tragedy — about this “despicable crime.”

obama commencement speech

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., May 24, 2013.

Delivering the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., a week ago, the President, after promising the graduates “the United States of America will always maintain our military superiority,” addressed the notion that “in recent decades many Americans have lost confidence in many of the institutions that help shape our society and our democracy… And we’ve seen how the actions of a few can undermine the integrity of those institutions.”

Clearly the President was also referring to the sexual abuse crisis in the military: “Likewise, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on Earth,” he said.

The President then called on the Midshipmen to have 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,” Moral Courage, “the strength to do what’s right, especially when it’s unpopular,” Commitment and Resolve.

Obama at Annapolis

President Barack Obama watches as graduates toss their hats at the conclusion of the U.S. Naval Academy commencement at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., May 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Addressing the Army’s newest officers in a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized the need for accountability and integrity as he mentioned threats to the health and quality of the all-volunteer force: alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and mental illness, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.

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Cadets sit with their diplomas at the commencement ceremony for the West Point Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. May 25, 2013.

Calling these “debilitating, insidious and destructive forces,” Hagel focused on sexual harassment and abuse:

Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts. 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. As President Obama said yesterday at the Naval Academy: “These crimes have no place in the greatest military on earth.”

At the Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Secretary of the Air Force Mike Donley addressed the 1,024 graduating cadets.

USAFA Class of 2013 Graduation


Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley congratulates cadet Zebulon Hanley as the top graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2013 during the commencement ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colo., May 29, 2013.

After emphasizing the rapid changes — and challenges — in the U.S. Air Force, Donley addressed “the scourge of sexual assault [that] is an affront to every airman and every individual who wears the uniform and it must not be tolerated”:

Our reputation is at risk by irresponsible and even criminal behavior in our ranks. Sexual assault is an affront to our core values. … You’re aware of Air Force efforts to deter it, to encourage reporting, to support victims and to hold perpetrators accountable. This is your Air Force, and changing behavior depends on changing, at every level, the climate and culture in which we live, both on and off duty.

Notwithstanding the president’s own “I don’t want just more speeches” edict — which he promptly violated — there will be many more eloquent speeches on this issue. While such speeches are great and while I am confident that the torrent of new initiatives, rules and regulations to curb sexual abuse in the military will have a beneficial impact, it will take a fundamental culture change in the military to eradicate sexual abuse within its ranks.

Looking at the sea of fresh, young faces at the graduation ceremonies of our great military academies, I know that these bright, passionate young men and women will bring new leadership to a military so laden with a change-resisting old guard, but more important, that they will bring about the fundamental culture change needed to permanently remove such a shameful stain.

Hat Toss

Members of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2013 celebrate graduation with the traditional hat toss, May 24, 2013. President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address.

Lead Image: The 1,024 newly minted second lieutenants of the Air Force Academy’s Class of 2013 toss their hats in the air as Texas Flying Legends Museum aircraft fly over Falcon Stadium May 29, 2013. The Flying Legends are based out of Ellington Field, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

All photos DOD

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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