Addressing future Navy and Marine leaders, President Barack Obama lauded Naval Academy graduates for their service and called for an end to sexual assaults in the military during his commencement speech on Friday.
The president, who delivered his speech under cloudy skies, praised the military as the “most trusted institution” in the country but warned that a few individuals “threaten the trust and discipline which makes our military strong.”
“We need your honor, that inner compass that guides you,” Obama said at the academy's Annapolis, Maryland campus. “Even more than physical courage, we need your moral courage — the strength to do what’s right, even when it’s unpopular.”
Concerns about sex-related crimes in armed services is not new. However, figures show that the rate of assaults has been increasing with some top officers being charged as well.
The sexual-assault epidemic in the armed services has sparked outrage in recent weeks after a wave of recent sex-related incidents prompted the president to meet with top military and Pentagon leaders at the White House and demanded they "leave no stone overturned" in their mission to prevent and address abuse.
According to a Pentagon report released earlier this month, an estimated 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted with thousands of victims still unwilling to come forwards despite stronger initiatives to address these crimes. Ranging from groping to rape, the estimated number of incidents increased by 37% last year.
“Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they are threatening the trust and discipline that make our military strong,” Obama said.
Earlier this month, two service members were accused of sexual misconduct. Both men were also in charge of preventing similar types of crimes. An Army sergeant first class assigned to the sexual-assault prevention unit at Fort Hood, Texas, also faced allegations in early May for "alleged sexual assault, pandering, abusive sexual contact, and maltreatment of subordinates."
Earlier this week, the Army announced the suspension of Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, commanding general of Fort Jackson, S.C., with charges of "adultery and involvement in a physical altercation."
"If you can't trust the people that you're working with to have your best interests at heart, if you can't trust the people that you're working with to not assault you, then you can't trust your unit which means that there's a divided unit," said Jenny McClendon, a veteran who was raped by a superior while serving in the U.S. Navy.
McClendon now works to advocate change through a group called "Protect our Defenders."
There needs to be a sweeping change in the armed services not just in policy, but in attitude toward the value of the work of both male and female leaders, soldiers, and subordinates.
“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 during the commencement speech. "They've got no place in the greatest military on earth."