Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prioritized the need to battle the spread of sexual assault while emphasizing humility and personal accountability during a Friday speech to the Naval Academy Class of 2014.
He highlighted the need for future officers to lead the fight against sexual assault in his commencement speech to 1,068 graduating midshipmen.
"You will all be counted on to lead in helping eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault of your sisters and brothers in uniform. You've seen what these crimes do to the survivors, their families, institutions, and communities – you know how they tear people and units apart, how they destroy the bonds of trust and confidence that lie at the heart of our military," Hagel said.
A 2013 Pentagon report shows that more than 5,061 sexual assault reports occurred in the military in 2013 with about 4,000 reported victims, Pentagon officials said.
Hagel's remarks on the issue at Annapolis come on the heels of a May 1 memo he authored outlining a series of new Defense Department steps and initiatives to strengthen efforts against sexual assault. He announced more than 28 new directives aimed at enhancing accountability, ensuring the proper command climate and improving victim support.
At the same time, there are critics of the Pentagon's approach to sexual assault who say not enough is being done. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D- N.Y., proposed legislation, which would have taken prosecutorial authority over sexual assault cases out of its chain of command. However, it failed in the Senate.
The Senate Armed Services Committee passed legislation led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, that includes amendments aimed at strengthening protections for victims of military sexual assault.
In his speech, Hagel tied the issue of sexual assault to dignity, ethics, humility and leadership. He told the graduating midshipmen to become "learning" leaders who show humility, take interest in the people they command and maintain the proper moral compass despite expected pressures. The defense secretary said this advice pertains to new recruits as well as four-star admirals, generals and senior leaders.
"We all have to step up and take action when we see something that hurts our people and our values. That's what leaders do," he said.
While celebrating the accomplishments of the midshipmen, Hagel made a point to emphasize that humility is a key ingredient to becoming a great leader.
"Humility is about respect. Give credit to others, and remember that you will never know enough or be as smart or good as you think you are. Someone else will always have something to teach you," he said.
Future Navy leaders will contend with a fast-changing global environment, Hagel said. He cited Vice Adm. Michael Miller, Naval Academy superintendent, who made reference to the South China Sea, Nigeria and the Ukraine as evidence of a challenging security environment.
Hagel called the challenge of future leadership in today's global environment a "heavy responsibility."
"Meeting the challenges, seizing the opportunities, and managing through this period of uncertainty and transition will require exceptional leadership. As new ensigns and new second lieutenants, you will be charged with helping lead America's sailors and Marines through this defining time," Hagel said.
In closing, Hagel told Annapolis grads that they will have a unique opportunity to shape the future of the Navy, and the nation.
"As small-unit leaders, you will have within your grasp the opportunity to do more for your people on a personal level than anyone else in the military. Now you have to seize that opportunity," he said.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@monster.com.