WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday ordered the military to recertify every person involved in programs designed to prevent and respond to sexual assault, an acknowledgment that assaults have escalated beyond the Pentagon’s control.
He said this step is one among many that will be taken to fix the problem of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within every branch of the military.
At a news conference with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel said he believes alcohol use is “a very big factor” in many sexual-assault and sexual-harassment cases, but there are many pieces to the problem.
Hagel said it has become clear to him since taking office in February that holding people accountable for their actions is important, but simply firing people is not a solution.
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A catalyst for congressional outrage has been the disclosure in recent days of at least two cases in which a military member with responsibility for sexual-assault-prevention programs has himself been accused of sexual misconduct.
Earlier Friday, the Air Force’s top general said that sexual assaults in his branch of the military typically involve alcohol use and can be traced to a lack of respect for women.
“We have a problem with respect for women that leads to many of the situations that result in sexual assault in our Air Force,” Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters in a lengthy interview in his Pentagon offices.
Welsh said combating the problem, which he characterized as a crisis, is his No. 1 priority as the Air Force chief of staff. He said he reviews every reported case of sexual assault; last year there were 792 in the Air Force.
Senior military officers are speaking about the problem with increasing bluntness and expressions of regret. Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, on Wednesday called it a “crisis” in the ranks, and on Thursday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, publicly acknowledged his service’s efforts are “failing.”
The problem, which has plagued the military for decades, has been sent 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.
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 retrain, rescreen and recertify those who lead the military’s sexual-assault prevention and response programs.
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.