President Obama on Tuesday said members of the military who commit sexual assaults are “betraying the uniform that they’re wearing” and demanded action from Defense Department officials.
Speaking to reporters during a joint press conference with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, he said perpetrators were “unpatriotic” and that his administration had to “exponentially step up” its efforts on the matter.
“This is not what the U.S. military is about, and it dishonors the vast majority of men and women in uniform who carry out their responsibilities and obligations with honor and dignity,” Obama said.
Obama’s comments came following the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the officer managing the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, on Sunday. Police in Arlington, Va., charged Krusinski with sexual battery after groping a woman in a local parking lot.
It also comes on the heels of a Defense Department study that indicated that the number of “unwanted sexual contact” incidents in the military had increased to an estimated 26,000 in fiscal 2012, up from an estimated 19,300 in fiscal 2010. The report said only 3,374 sexual assault reports were filed in fiscal 2012, up from 3,192 in fiscal 2011 but still a fraction of the total number of estimated potential cases.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday said that sexual assaults undermined the Pentagon’s mission, and ability to recruit and retain men and women. In a memo to senior Defense leaders on Monday, he directed the implementation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Strategic Plan to increase accountability, promote victim advocacy and improve sexual assault prevention mechanisms. Hagel’s memo asked the leaders to report back by July 31.
“Sexual assault is a despicable crime, and one of the most serious challenges facing this department,” Hagel said.
During congressional hearings on Tuesday, senior officials in the Air Force and Navy spoke out against the instances of sexual assault. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh II told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was “appalled” when he learned of the Krusinski’s arrest, and said such behavior was “inappropriate and unacceptable.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Monday’s news “angered” him, and told the committee he was working to eliminate the problem from his service.
Members of Congress also condemned what they said they saw as a systemic problem within the military. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., introduced the 2013 Combating Military Sexual Assault Act on Tuesday, which would provide greater resources for victims.
“However, it’s unconscionable to think that entertaining unwanted sexual contact from within the ranks is now part of that equation,” Murray said in a statement.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y., who has also been outspoken on the issue, said in a statement Tuesday that she too would be introducing legislation next week to “create real accountability for assailants and justice for victims.”
She added: “While the changes proposed in the report are a small step forward, we need real reform that takes decision making over these cases outside of the chain of command, which is the step necessary to create real accountability for assailants and justice for victims.”
Bob Brewin contributed to this story.