Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pleaded for time Friday in developing plans to combat the rise in sexual assaults in the ranks that top commanders and President Obama have described as a "crisis" threatening national security.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also suggested that the military culture may have become too "forgiving" in looking the other way when allegations of sexual assault are leveled at bemedaled veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Commanders might have a tendency "to become a little too forgiving" when the accused in a sex abuse case has a "rack of ribbons, four deployments and a Purple Heart, " Dempsey said. However, "the risks inherent to military service must not include the risk of sexual assault," Dempsey said.
"We can and do much more to change a culture that has become complacent," in the military, Dempsey said. "Now is the time for moral courage. There can be no bystanders."
At a Pentagon news briefing, Hagel and Dempsey said they were reviewing at least 10 legislative proposals put forward by Congress for dealing with sexual assault, including a sweeping bill offered by Sen. Kirsten Gilligrand, D-N.Y., that would strip commanders of their power to convene courts martial and overturn their verdicts.
Hagel stopped short of endorsing any of the proposals, and instead said he would rely on recommendations that will come from an independent sexual assault review which has just been appointed, with four members named by Congress and five by the Defense Department.
"We’ve got to see what they come up with," Hagel said of the panel. "We’re going to have to do something. Whatever, we do, we’ve got to make sure it’s right. I would hope that we would have some time here to listen to what the panel comes back with."
Hagel and Dempsey said that the sexual assault crisis could be attributed to a number of factors, and alcohol abuse was high on the list.
"Alcohol does play a very big role in many cases," Hagel said. "There’s no question it does. It’s part of the larger context of why this is happening. "
Hagel later released a memo to the service secretaries and service chiefs ordering them to hold a "stand-down" for all those in their command before July 1 to focus on dealing with the spike in sexual assaults and providing refresher training for recruiters and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs).
"The end state of this stand down will be that leaders, recruiters, SARCs, and every member of the armed forces clearly understand that they are accountable for fostering a climate where sexist behaviors, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated," Hagel said in the memo.
Hagel and Dempsey addressed sexual assaults a day after yet another military sexual abuse prevention official was brought up on charges involving harassment.
In the latest case, Army Lt. Col. Darin Haas, manager of the sexual harassment and assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., turned himself in to police after his wife charged that he was violating a protection order against him.
Haas, 42, was removed from his post at the assault response program pending results of an investigation of the charges.
Earlier this month, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, chief of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, was arrested by Arlington County, Va., police on charges of sexual battery for allegedly groping a woman outside a strip club.
The Pentagon also disclosed this week that the Criminal Investigation Command was looking into allegations that an Army sergeant first class, who served as a Sexual sexual assault prevention official, was involved in pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates.
The latest incidents and a Defense Department report last week showing that sex assaults in the military were increasing has prompted Hagel to order all the service branches to "re-train, re-credential, and re-screen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters."
Before the Hagel-Dempsey news briefing, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said he was "open" to changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would limit the authority of commanders to convene courts martial and overturn their verdicts.
In a blog posting to all soldiers in his command, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, put it bluntly: "The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment. It is time we take on the fight as our primary mission," Odierno said.