Convening a White House meeting on sexual assault in the military, President Obama said Thursday that top Defense Department officials are "ashamed" and that he has ordered them to eliminate the "scourge."
At the end of the meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and other brass, the president took the unusual step of summoning the press and making a lengthy statement about how seriously he is treating the problem of sexual assault in military ranks.
"Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be," Mr. Obama said. "And as such, it is dangerous to our national security. This is not a sideshow. This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we're going to be."
Mr. Obama made the comments on the same day of developments in two cases involving soldiers given the task of combating sexual misconduct in the ranks.
In one case, Army officials said Thursday that the manager of Fort Campbell's sexual assault response program was removed after his arrest in a child custody dispute with his ex-wife. Lt. Col. Darin Haas turned himself in to civilian authorities in Clarksville, Tenn., late Wednesday on charges of stalking and violating a protection order.
In the other, the coordinator of a similar program at Fort Hood, Texas, has been accused of various sex crimes involving three women, including forcing one into prostitution. On Thursday evening, The Associated Press identified the soldier, about whose case Mr. Hagel briefed Mr. Obama on Tuesday, as Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen.
The Pentagon reported last week that sexual assaults in the military rose 4 percent from 2009 to 2012, with a total of 3,374 cases last year. Army chief of staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Thursday that his service's efforts are "failing."
During that time, the number of "unfounded allegations" based on completed investigations of those reports rose from 331 to 444, or 35 percent. In 2012, false complaints accounted for about 17 percent of all closed cases. False reports accounted for about 13 percent of closed cases in 2009.
Mr. Obama said his top priorities is "empowering victims" and ensuring justice for them.
"We've got to create an environment in which victims feel that they're comfortable coming forward and they know people have their backs," the president said. "They've got to know that they should have no fear of retaliation, no fear of stigma, no damage to their careers, and certainly no protection for criminals. When victims do come forward, they deserve justice. Perpetrators have to experience consequences."
Among the proposals circulated at the meeting were better training of personnel and creating incentives for military officials "to understand this is as core to our mission as anything else," Mr. Obama said.
The president said the rise in reports of sexual assault in the military might be a sign "that we're actually getting at this problem."
But he also said he wants "those trend lines to start going down" to show that the military is fixing the problem. He emphasized that he had given the military brass their marching orders on the issue.
"They all understand this is a priority and we will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," Mr. Obama said.
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