Sexual assault in the military is a crime and a problem that all military members at all levels will have to fight together, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today.
"This is going to take all of us," Hagel said during a joint Pentagon news conference with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hagel noted he and Dempsey, along with the service secretaries and chiefs of staff, attended an, "important, productive" White House meeting yesterday with President Barack Obama to address the situation, which Dempsey has termed a "crisis."
The meeting was important, Hagel said, because "It gave the president an opportunity to ask questions directly, and get the sense of this huge problem, serious problem in our military."
It also allowed those military leaders to share their views with the commander in chief, Hagel said. He added all the meeting's participants are committed to solving sexual assaults, noting, "There's not one of these people in leadership today that wants this to be their legacy."
The secretary said he spoke by phone today with the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, a nine-member body mandated by Congress, four selected by members of Congress and five by Hagel, that is charged with conducting a detailed review of factors surrounding sexual assault cases in the military.
"They're all highly respected, highly regarded, experienced men and women who understand cultures, society, command, and I think it's an exceptionally well-balanced group of men and women who we look to, to help us," Hagel said. He noted that there are a number of pieces of legislation pending in Congress designed to address sexual assault issues, but asked for time for the panel to do its work.
"I would hope that we would have some time here, everyone would have some time, to listen to what the panel comes back with," he said, " ... and give them some time here to go in and really assess the problem. Why do we have the problem? How can we prevent the problem? What should we be doing better?"
Hagel noted sexual assault is a complex crime with many potential contributing factors, including popular culture, accountability and alcohol use. "There are so many dimensions to this that I don't think you can come at it in one simple way," he said. "I get a lot of advice on this, and I listen to everybody."
The secretary particularly emphasized listening to sexual assault victims who "didn't feel their commanders were accountable enough [for victims] to be able to come forward and register a complaint, file a complaint, because they thought they would be subject to many things, ... and then also having no confidence that anything would be done about their complaint."
The secretary noted he issued guidance today on mandatory recertification and retraining for recruiters and sexual assault responders across the force. He is receiving weekly briefings on progress achieved, he said.
Hagel concluded, "We continue to look at every option, and we will. We have to. Every option is on the table."
Dempsey said the risks inherent to military service must not include the risk of sexual assault.
"It betrays the trust on which our profession is founded. It's a crime that demands accountability and consequences," the general said. He noted the Joint Chiefs have spent the better part of a year implementing a campaign focused on prevention, investigation, accountability, advocacy and assessment.
"The emphasis on prevention is especially important," Dempsey added. "As the president made clear to us yesterday, we can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent. Now's the time for us to recommit ourselves to our profession. Now's the time for character to be valued as much, if not more, than competence. Now's the time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders."
Dempsey said during his early years in service, "The Army was broken." Racial tension and drug abuse "tore at the fabric of our service," he added.
Today's joint service is not broken -- it is in fact remarkably resilient, he said.
"But we have a serious problem that we must solve: aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together," the chairman said.
He concluded, "Every single member of the joint force in every unit at every level must be alert to the problem and be part of the solution. Working together, we can and will restore faith in ourselves, and the trust and faith of the American people."