Obama vows sustained effort on military sex abuse

Friday - 5/17/2013, 3:40am EDT

LOLITA C. BALDOR
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama said Thursday the nation's military leaders told him they are "ashamed" of their failure to end sexual abuse in the armed services. Obama pledged to "leave no stone unturned" in the effort to halt the abuse, which he said undermines the trust the military needs to be effective.

Obama also said he has asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to lead a process to root out the problem.

"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said at the White House, after he summoned Hagel, Dempsey and other top defense leaders to discuss a problem thrust to the fore by recent misconduct cases and a Pentagon report showing that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year.

"I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what's happened," Obama said.

Earlier Thursday, the Army's top officer acknowledged that his service is failing in its effort to stop sexual assaults.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, issued a public message to all soldiers in which he said the "bedrock of trust" between soldiers and their leaders has been violated by a recent string of misconduct cases.

He said the Army demonstrated competence and courage through nearly 12 years of war. "Today, however, the Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment," he wrote.

"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission," Odierno said.

In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Obama also spoke about how sexual assault undermines the trust that men and women in uniform need to work as a team.

He said he wants the military and others to explore every good idea to fix the problem, saying "I want to leave no stone unturned." Obama said Hagel would consult with Congress as well as other militaries around the world.

Allegations of sexual assault in the military have triggered outrage from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.

"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," Dempsey said Wednesday.

"That's a crisis," Dempsey said in remarks during a flight from Europe to Washington that were reported by the American Forces Press Service, which is the Pentagon's internal news agency. Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.

"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."

Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."

The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, the Pentagon news conference was postponed until Friday.

The latest sexual assault allegation emerged this week and involved an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes -- the second military member facing similar accusations.

On Thursday, Army officials said the manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., had been relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife. The program he managed was meant to prevent sexual harassment and assault and encourage equal opportunity.

The Pentagon said Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.

But Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.

"The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, adding that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier's activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.