Obama: Sexual assault threatens trust and discipline that makes U.S. military strong

The president urged new graduates to exhibit honor and courage in tackling incidents of sexual assault as they assume leadership positions in the military.
The president urged new graduates to exhibit honor and courage in tackling incidents of sexual assault as they assume leadership positions in the military.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Choosing future Navy and Marine leaders as his audience, President Barack Obama issued a pointed call today for an end to sexual assaults in the military, appealing to graduating midshipmen to display honor and moral courage to contain what has become a growing epidemic.

Obama spoke at the commissioning ceremony for 1,047 midshipmen, telling the 841 men and 206 women that the wrongdoing of a few can damage the nation's institutions, from government to Wall Street, and that "even in our military we've seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide"

"Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they are threatening the trust and discipline that make out military strong," he said.

The issue of sexual assault in the armed services has captured the attention of Washington, prompting Obama last week to meet with top military brass and Pentagon leaders at the White House, instructing them to lead a process to root out the problem.

A Pentagon report released earlier this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year. It said thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite stronger efforts to curb the crimes.

The report showed the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.

Obama also urged the new Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants to use the leadership skills and values learned at the Naval Academy to help prevent behavior on the battlefield that can damage the image of the U.S. overseas.

"In our digital age, a single image from the battlefield of troops falling short of their standards can go viral and endanger our forces and undermine our efforts to achieve security and peace," the president said.

Obama spoke amid cool temperatures and a light rain, which drove away many spectators and left large sections of the blue stadium seating empty.

Obama's address was the second to a military audience in as many days, coming a day after he laid out his counterterrorism vision at the National Defense University, where he defended his controversial program of strikes by unmanned drones and renewed his push to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility.

It's a tradition for presidents to rotate speeches at the commissioning ceremonies of the four service academies. The Naval Academy, about 30 miles from the White House in Annapolis, Md., says 16 presidents have addressed graduates, and Obama is the sixth to do so twice. He also addressed 2009 graduates.

The ceremony and its pageantry could not escape Washington's budget fights. The Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic team won't perform because of budget cuts due to a fight between Obama and congressional Republicans.

But the ceremony also featured a fitting achievement: For the first time in the academy's history, an entire family will have graduated from the school.

Matt Disher was joining his brother Brett and sister Alison, as well as his father Tim and mother Sharon as alumni.

"Tim and I never expected anything like this," said Sharon, who graduated in 1980 in the first class that included women. "In fact, if anything we probably discouraged the kids from going, because if you don't come in for the right reason, which is to serve your country, you're not going to last."

Sharon Disher, of Annapolis, wrote the book "First Class" about the difficulties of being in the first class that included women at the academy.