Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told the newest group of Air Force officers who graduated from the Air Force Academy and received their commissions Wednesday that the military at large is facing a "scourge" of sexual assault and they must work to rid the military of this growing problem.
Donley's message at the Air Force Academy commencement was the continuation of the theme at the Naval Academy and West Point graduations where President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered similar messages to the newly commissioned officers.
The rise of sexual assault in the services, coming at a time when women are playing a greater role throughout the military, has spurred President Obama to address it during the Naval Academy commencement last Friday, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to do the same a day later at West Point.
Closer to home for the Air Force Academy, three cadets were charged last year with rape or the attempted rape of two female cadets and a woman civilian.
Also, one of its graduates has faced national scrutiny. Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, an Air Force Academy graduate, was the officer in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response program who is currently facing charges of sexual assault in Arlington, Va.
At the Naval Academy, a Marine major who was a former instructor is facing charges for raping a former midshipman and having a sexual relationship with another midshipman. Marine Maj. Mark Thompson’s trial started on Tuesday.
At West Point, inspectors continue to investigate an Army sergeant first class for allegedly planting cameras in the showers at West Point.
A recent Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 servicemembers 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.
Donley called sexual assault in the military "a scourge" that is inconsistent with Air Force values.
"Today the character of our Air Force is being questioned by some. Our reputation is at risk from irresponsible and even criminal behavior within our ranks," he told the 1,024 graduating cadets. "It is an affront to every airman and every individual who wears the uniform, and it must not be tolerated."
He said it is not enough that the cadets have received training in how to avoid or intervene in situations that may lead to the crime of sexual assault. It's also not enough to be aware of Air Force efforts to deter it, to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable, he said.
"This is your Air Force, and changing behavior depends on changing at every level, the command climate and the social culture in which we operate and live, both on and off duty," Donley said. "Each of us is responsible for the character of this Air Force and its reputation, and I therefore charge you to serve with integrity and by your example to lead, to say and to do what is right for our Air Force."
Donley, who is leaving the job on June 21 after five years, also told the graduates that they were entering an Air Force that will be challenged by serious budget cuts, including those forced by sequestration. The cuts are undermining Air Force efforts to maintain military readiness and modernize aircraft, satellites, weapons systems and other critical equipment, Donley said.
But that’s not their problem, he told them.
"You must not be distracted by the fiscal debates in Washington. Our nation's defense establishment has had to deal with strategic and budgetary uncertainty before, and Air Force leadership will again find a way to work through these issues."
It’s the leadership’s responsibility to make sure the country retains the best Air Force in the world, regardless of the resources provided, he said.
"It's your responsibility now to learn your jobs and be good leaders," he said.