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Obama decries military sexual assault in address to Navy grads

By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 08:34 a.m. HST, May 24, 2013

ANNAPOLIS, Md. » With a growing sexual assault epidemic staining the military, President Barack Obama urged U.S. Naval Academy graduates today to remember their honor depends on what they do when nobody is looking and said the crime has "no place in the greatest military on earth."

The commander in chief congratulated the 1,047 midshipmen graduating at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, telling the 841 men and 206 women that they have proven themselves morally by meeting rigorous standards at the academy. But their commencement celebration came in the midst of reports of widespread sexual assault throughout the military, and Obama ended his 20-minute address by recognizing "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 threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong," Obama said. "That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth."

His pointed comments were aimed at rooting out the problem at a time when Republicans have been criticizing Obama for not responding forcefully enough to controversies including last year's deadly attack in Libya and political targeting at the IRS. But Obama was quick to express outrage over the reports of sexual assault, saying he has no tolerance for it. He summoned military leaders to the White House last week and instructed them to lead a process to root out the problem.

The Pentagon released a report earlier this month estimating that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.

Several recent arrests have added to the military's embarrassment. A soldier at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army's sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.

The president shook the hand of each academy graduate as he or she came to collect a diploma, after graduates took their oath of office as Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants.

The applause that had accompanied earlier portions of Obama's Naval Academy speech, as he mentioned the Navy Seal's killing of Osama bin Laden and called for the building of a powerful 300-ship fleet, fell to silence as he turned to the sexual assault scandal. Midshipmen and spectators watching under cool gray skies as a light rain fell listened silently as he repeated the refrain: "We need your honor."

Obama urged the graduates to use the leadership skills and values learned at the academy to help prevent behavior in the battlefield that can damage the image of the U.S. overseas.

"We need your honor, that inner compass that guides you, not when the path is easy and obvious, but it's hard and uncertain, that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong," Obama said. "Perhaps it will be the moment when you think nobody's watching. But never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody's looking."

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 drone strikes program 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, twins who graduated in 2010, 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: Women Join the Ranks at the Naval Academy" about the difficulties of being in the class of 1980, the first that included women.

Associated Press writer Brian Witte contributed.

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allie wrote:
Agree with Obama. This outrage needs to stop
on May 24,2013 | 08:37AM
iwanaknow wrote:
Just alot of talk on a Memorial Day weekend................the proof is in the pudding.
on May 24,2013 | 09:24AM
serious wrote:
These talks should be given by American War heroes, not--well!!!! Women wanted the equal opportunities and the women politicians who never served pushed it. When you get young adults in the prime of their sex lives--how do you put up the barriers? Look at the article today about the Japanese Sex Slaves--the problem hasn't gone away. In private life--at least when I had a business-- you couldn't get sexual harassment insurance since it's impossible to defend when he says and she says and the juries go with the claimant and the deep pockets--the company pays.
on May 24,2013 | 10:19AM
allie wrote:
the mess is a real embarrassment. Why would we women volunteer to be harassed by our own troops?
on May 24,2013 | 12:34PM
Skyler wrote:
RIght. Blame the women for it all. Did you know that there are men on men sexual assaults in the military as well as men on women? Neither is acceptable. Get need to learn how to keep Dick under control.
on May 24,2013 | 12:35PM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
Anyone else see the irony?
on May 24,2013 | 09:39AM
DAGR81 wrote:
Why doesn't President obama tend to the more important and pressing needs of this Nation? Some matters such as this can be monitored and resolved by someone else in his administration while he personally addresses the more critical and difficult issues.
on May 24,2013 | 10:47AM
AhiPoke wrote:
As a highly skilled politician the president is doing everything he can to distract the American public about the growing scandals in his administration. The self proclaimed "transparent president" has been anything but, unless you consider the fact that most unbiased people can see right through him.
on May 24,2013 | 11:33AM
Skyler wrote:
Well since he's the de facto 'Commander in Chief' - he should be speaking out. About dam. time, too.
on May 24,2013 | 12:36PM
retire wrote:
Having served in the military and also worked for the DOD for many years, we often hear from it's leaders that military personnel are held to a "higher standard" of conduct. I find it difficult to believe that still has any credence, given the elevated level of suicides, sexual harassment, sexual assault and mandated open homosexuality that exist in our armed services today. If anything, those actions represent a lowered standard of conduct, and loss of discipline and proper conduct within the ranks.
on May 24,2013 | 01:21PM
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