President Barack Obama told the nation's newest Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants on May 24 that sexual assaults in the ranks threatened to erode the public's faith in the military.
"Our military remains the most trusted institution in America," Obama said in a commencement address to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., "and yet, we must acknowledge that even here, even in our military, we've seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide."
Obama said that "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."
Similar messages on sexual assault were expected to be delivered on May 25 by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to graduates of the Air Force Academy on May 29.
A Defense Department survey released earlier this month estimated that 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault or "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012, up from 19,000 incidents in 2010. A separate DOD report last December showed that sexual assaults were a "persistent problem," in the words of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at all three military academies.
At West Point, parents of cadets were being informed that Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon, a member of the Academy's staff, was under investigation for allegedly planting hidden cameras in women's showers and locker rooms. At the Air Force Academy, three cadets were charged last year with rape or the attempted rape of two female cadets and a woman civilian.
Bipartisan groups of senators and congressmen have sponsored legislation to overhaul the Uniform Code of Military Justice to limit command authority over courts martial and possibly take the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.
When Congress returns from the Memorial Day recess, the full Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on June 4 on sexual assaults in the military with testimony from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all the service chiefs.
As newly-commissioned officers, the 1,047 Naval Academy graduates, including 841 men and 206 women, must "treat one another with respect," Obama said, and "live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability."
The graduating class included 264 who chose commissions in the Marine Corps. The class also included 43 graduates who previously served in the enlisted ranks in the Navy and the Marines.
As he has done on most public occasions recently, Obama also blamed Congress for allowing automatic budget cuts known as sequestration to take effect, resulting in major funding decreases for the military.
"In these tough fiscal times, we also have to make hard choices at home, including in our armed forces," Obama said, but he pledged that the U.S. "will always maintain our military superiority."
"And as your commander-in-chief, I'm going to keep fighting to give you the equipment and support required to meet the missions we ask of you, and also to make sure that you are getting the pay and the benefits and the support that you deserve," Obama said.
Obama said he intended to press to expand the Navy's fleet to 300 ships despite the budget reductions. "I'll keep fighting for the capabilities and technologies you need to prevail, and a shipbuilding plan that puts us on track to achieve a 300-ship fleet, with capabilities that exceed the power of the next dozen navies combined," he said.
For the second time in a week, Obama made a speech at an outdoor event under a light rain. Last week, Obama was criticized for ordering Marines to hold umbrellas for himself and the visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a White House event.
Obama noted the light rain at Annapolis but avoided another umbrella moment. "I know it's a little wet, but the Superintendent [Vice Adm. Michael Miller] told me that Marines and folks in the Navy don't mind a little water," he said to laughter from the audience.
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