From left: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, President Obama, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson, attend a meeting of service secretaries, service chiefs and senior enlisted advisers to discuss sexual assault in the military in the Cabinet Room of the White House on May 16. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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WASHINGTON — President Obama said Thursday the nation’s military leaders told him they are “ashamed” of their failure to end sexual abuse in the armed services, and he promised an accelerated effort to find solutions.
“We will not stop until we’ve seen this scourge from what is the greatest military in the world eliminated,” he told reporters after addressing an unusually large gathering of military leaders to the White House led by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Senior military officers have spoken bluntly in recent days about the problem. Dempsey on Wednesday called it a “crisis,” and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, said Thursday his service’s efforts are “failing.”
“They care about this and they are angry about it,” Obama said.
“Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made themilitary less effective than it can be,” Obama said.
Those summoned by Obama included not just Hagel, Dempsey and the chiefs of each military service but also the civilian heads of each service and senior enlisted advisers.
“I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what’s happened,” Obama said.
The president added that because assault victims may be more likely now to come forward with complaints, the number of reported assaults may increase in the short run.
“I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we’re also starting to fix the problem and we’ve highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it,” Obama said.
The problem, which has plagued the military for decades, has been thrust to the fore by recent cases, including that of an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office but was himself arrested for sexual battery.
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.
Hagel has said resolving the problem of sexual assault in the military is one of his top priorities, as did his predecessor, Leon Panetta. Hagel is expected to make public in coming days a written directive that spells out steps the Pentagon will take to re-train, re-screen and re-certify those who lead the military’s sexual assault prevention and response programs.
Earlier Thursday, Odierno, the Army chief, 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.
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. Obama said Thursday, “There is no silver bullet.”
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 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.
A Pentagon report last week estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
That report, and a recent series of arrests and other sexual assault problems across the military, have triggered a rush of initiatives from the Pentagon and proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.
But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes, both in law and inmilitary culture.
“There is not a quick fix,” said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “The military can’t train its way out of this problem.”
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation Thursday taking top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial. For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement — akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system — that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.
“‘What we need to do is change the system so victims know that they can receive justice,” Gillibrand said Thursday on CBS “This Morning.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Donna Cassata and Nedra Pickler and AP Radio correspondent Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.