WEST POINT, N.Y. - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on Saturday that they must stamp out the scourge of sexual assault in the military.
A day after President Barack Obama delivered a similar edict to U.S. Naval Academy graduates, Hagel's message comes amid a series of widespread incidents of sexual misconduct across the armed services in recent months and a new report showing that the problem is growing. The challenge is particularly poignant for West Point, since an Army sergeant was charged earlier in the week with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the upper New York state academy, including in a bathroom.
"Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal — a profound betrayal — of sacred oaths and sacred trusts," Hagel told 1,007 graduating cadets during a cold, rainy outdoor ceremony. "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."
Hagel, who served in the Army in Vietnam, took the opportunity to reflect on his own time in uniform and the lessons that he said must resonate as the soldiers take on the job of helping to transform the military. It was his first graduation address as defense chief.
The new second lieutenants, he said, must be the generation of leaders who will stop the debilitating and insidious threats of suicide, sexual assault and drug and alcohol abuse that are hurting the all-volunteer force.
Wounded twice during his roughly one year at war, Hagel has two Purple Hearts and is the first man to become secretary of defense after serving only in the enlisted corps. Reflecting on his military service, Hagel said his time in the Army shaped him forever.
"In Vietnam, I learned that combat is a furnace that can consume you, or it can forge you into something better and stronger than you were before," said Hagel, who took over the job as Pentagon chief at the end of February.
He also told the graduates that they must begin to build the future Army as the service recovers from the strains of more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Future conflicts, he said, will take on new and unfamiliar forms, and the military must be ready to face them even as budget cuts force the service to curtail training and trim the number of soldiers from a wartime high of about 570,000 to 490,000.
But he said that readiness will be strained by health and social problems.
Pentagon leaders have been struggling to deal with what they have come to call an epidemic of sexual assaults in the military. A Pentagon report released this month estimated that as many as 26,000 military service members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs. The estimate was based largely on anonymous surveys.
According to the report, the number of sexual assaults actually reported by military service members rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. And nearly 800 of those simply sought help but declined to file complaints against their attackers.
Spurred on by furious Congress members, the Defense Department has ordered the services to come up with ways to curb the problem and better help the victims.
In the latest case, Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon is facing charges of dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women's bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos of at least a dozen women who were naked or in various states of undress.
The women have been notified by the Army about the matter.
Despite the news this week, female cadets interviewed after the ceremony said they felt secure during their four years at the academy on the Hudson River.
"We've had issues here and there that the press really highlights. But overall I know that my classmates, my friends, we all feel very safe and we do think that was the exception," said Abigail Osman, of Hershey Pa.
Jordan Reilly, who lives near Memphis, Tenn., said the academy is doing a good job addressing sexual harassment, especially over the last year.
"The friends that I've made here, I know that they will protect me. A lot of them see themselves as my older brothers and so I feel safe," Reilly said.
Still, some cadets and parents said they were glad Hagel bought up sexual misconduct in his speech. Stacy Davis, of Madison, Wis., said that as a mother with one daughter in the Marines and another who graduated West Point on Saturday, she feels it's important to talk about sexual harassment openly.
"That's the main thing, everyone has to be talking about it," Davis said.
McClendon was charged May 14 with violating four articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but some of the allegations date back to 2009. He has been transferred to Fort Drum. It isn't immediately clear if he has a lawyer.
Baldor contributed from Washington.