WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday ordered the military to recertify all 25,000 people involved in programs designed to prevent and respond to sexual assault, an acknowledgement that assaults have escalated beyond the Pentagon’s control.
He said this step, which also applies to the military’s approximately 19,000 recruiters and must be completed by July 1, is one among many that will be taken to fix the problem of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within every branch of the military.
At a news conference with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel said he believes alcohol use is “a very big factor” in many sexual assault and sexual harassment cases, but there are many pieces to the problem.
He and Dempsey spoke one day after all of the military’s leadership were summoned to the White House to discuss the sexual assault problem with President Barack Obama, who has expressed impatience with the Pentagon’s failure to solve it.
At his Pentagon news conference, Hagel said it has become clear to him since taking office in February that holding people accountable for their actions is important, but simply firing people is not a solution. He said he gets a lot of advice on that.
He said some ask him, “Well, why don’t you just fire some people?” He said his answer is, “Well, yeah, we could do that. And, you know, who are you going to fire?”
Hagel signed a one-page memorandum addressed to the uniformed chiefs and civilian heads of each of the military services requiring that the credentials and qualifications of all recruiters, sexual-assault-response coordinators and sexual-assault victim advocates be reviewed to ensure that they meet current standards. They also will be given refresher training on professional ethics and the impact of violations.
“I am concerned that this department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime — and the perception that there is tolerance of it — could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission, and to recruit and retain good people,” Hagel wrote.
A catalyst for congressional outrage has been the disclosure in recent days of at least two cases in which a military member with responsibility for sexual-assault prevention programs has himself been accused of sexual misconduct. Cases of sexual assault allegations against military recruiters also have arisen recently.
Dempsey, who has been among the most outspoken Pentagon officials on this topic, called sexual assault in the military “a crime that demands accountability and consequences.”
“As the president made clear to us yesterday, we can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent,” Dempsey said. “We have a serious problem that we must solve: aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together.”
Earlier Friday, the Air Force’s top general said that sexual assaults in his branch of the military typically involve alcohol use, and can be traced to a lack of respect for women.
“We have a problem with respect for women that leads to many of the situations that result in sexual assault in our Air Force,” Gen. Mark Welsh said in a lengthy interview in his Pentagon office.
Welsh said combatting the problem, which he characterized as a crisis, is his No. 1 priority as the Air Force chief of staff. He said he reviews every reported case of sexual assault; last year there were 792 in the Air Force.
Welsh addressed criticism about his comment last week, in response to questions at a congressional hearing, that the problem can be explained in part by a “hook-up mentality” in the wider society. Some said his remark implied that the blame rests mainly with victims.
“If I had this to do over again, I would take more time to answer the question and not try to compress it,” he said, adding that his point was that every person who enters the Air Force needs to be instructed in “this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity and value of every individual.”
“Now, I didn’t say it that way in the hearing, and I wish I had because I think it gave, especially victims, the opportunity for someone to interpret what I said as blaming the victims,” he said, adding that as a result, “I am sorry about that because there is nothing that is farther from the truth.”
Obama said Thursday that he is determined to eliminate the “scourge” of sexual assault in the military, while cautioning that it will take a long, sustained effort by all military members.