WASHINGTON, April 23, 2015 – Eradicating the scourge of sexual assault in the military will require strong leaders if the U.S. military is to remain the finest fighting force in the world, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Wednesday at Georgetown University. Speaking to ROTC cadets and midshipmen from Georgetown, the University of Maryland, Howard University, George Mason University and George Washington University, Carter discussed the importance of eliminating sexual assault in the military, and their potential roles as leaders in doing so.
“The reason our military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known is its people,” Carter said. “Taking care of our people -- whether that’s in Afghanistan, on bases around the country, or studying here in the nation’s capital -- … is my highest priority.”
The defense secretary noted ongoing challenges around the world, such as Afghanistan, Russian provocations, cyberattacks and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“We’re also working to reform how the Pentagon spends money, [recovering] from 14 years of war,” Carter said, “and at the same time, [building] the force of the future.”
As the military faces these challenges, “we can’t let problems, including the scourge of sexual assault in the ranks, undermine that important work and our vital mission,” he said. “Instead, we have to confront them.”
It won’t be easy, Carter acknowledged before noting that “easy” isn’t the reason many of the cadets and midshipman signed up for ROTC.
Carter told the group that ending sexual assault in the military will require strong leaders.
“You’re part of ROTC programs with rich histories of leadership,” he said. “Those commissioned out of your programs have led troops into battle, become flag officers, served as Army chief of staff, and advised presidents and secretaries of defense.”
“You made clear you were a leader the moment you chose ROTC,” Carter continued. “You’ll be some of our brightest and best-prepared junior officers when you’re commissioned.”
The defense secretary noted because the students are studying in Washington at a time when sexual assault has received “much-deserved” attention, they will have an understanding of the urgency to be leaders on the issue for years to come.
Particular Challenge for the Military
Sexual assault is a disgrace in any form, Carter said, adding that it is particularly disgraceful to the U.S. military for a few important reasons.
The first, he said, is that the U.S. military is based on trust and an ethos of honor, and that sexual assault is dishonorable. “We have to have trust,” he said. “You have to trust the soldier in the foxhole next to you. You have to trust the sailor you’re underway with. You have to have trust the airman on your wing. And you have to trust the Marine on your flank.”
Carter said these assaults aren’t just violations of the law, but also are “violations of that trust which is essential to our mission.”
Situation Unlike Others
Service members are in situations unlike those in any other profession, Carter said, because they serve in a “rigid” chain of command for good reason.
“You’ll likely be separated from your families for extended periods of time,” he said, “and you’ll probably, at some point, live and work in austere conditions.” While those types of environments, unfortunately, are essential, Carter said, they also present opportunities for predators to put other people at risk, compromising the military’s missions and values.
“So our institution has a particular reason to combat sexual assault,” he said.
Force of the Future
Another reason for eradicating sexual assault, Carter said, is because it is an issue for potential recruits for the force of the future.
“They care about it,” he said. “I was at my old high school a few weeks ago in an auditorium like this talking to students, and one of the students asked me about this issue.”
Carter said he was sorry a student had to ask the question of whether it was safe for her to join the military, but he acknowledged it’s an issue for potential recruits.
“We can’t let sexual assault make our all-volunteer force a less attractive path for the next generation of talented, dedicated individuals that we need,” he said.
Working Hard for Progress
Because sexual assault threatens the well-being of servicemen and women, Carter said, the Defense Department has been working hard on this issue for several years, implementing more than 100 congressionally mandated provisions and 50 secretary of defense directives.
“We’ve made some progress,” he said. “We’ve seemed to have seen some decrease in the estimated number of assaults, and we’ve seemed to have seen some increase in those reporting an assault.”
“But last year,” Carter continued, “we estimated that at least 18,900 service members -- 10,400 men and 8,500 women -- experienced unwanted sexual contact. And too few of them -- particularly men -- report these incidents as assaults.”
The defense secretary said that’s 18,900 too many, and no man or woman who serves in the U.S. military should ever be sexually assaulted.
One reason the military is among the most admired institutions in the country, Carter said, is because of its code of honor and trust.
“And also because we’re known as a learning organization,” he added. “We strive to understand and correct our flaws. And, as we have spent more time and resources to better understand sexual assault in the ranks, we have learned many lessons.”
These include emphasizing that prevention is the most important way to eradicate sexual assault, Carter said, and it is also required to stamp out impermissible behaviors such as tolerance for degrading language, inappropriate behaviors and sexual harassment.
Another challenge, he said, is the perception of people reporting, trying to prevent, or responding to an assault that they may be retaliated against.
Eliminating sexual assault also requires individual action, the defense secretary said.
“We need leaders in the ranks with the courage to stand up to behaviors that contribute to sexual assault, the courage to step up, step in and stop assaults, and the courage to act when others try to retaliate against those reporting, responding to, or preventing an assault,” he said.
Prevention of Sexual Assault
Carter encouraged the students to be part of the solution and to recognize the key to prevention begins with understanding that an environment in which impermissible behavior is tolerated puts people at risk.
“It won’t always be easy,” he said. “But to learn how, I encourage you to take a look at our sexual assault prevention strategy we released last May. I need you to intervene when you think an assault may occur. And, if for some reason you’re concerned about taking action, I need you to get help from a friend, from law enforcement, from a chaplain, or from a more senior officer.”
Leaders in Person and Online
For those people assaulted, Carter said the crime can be made worse by how those individuals are treated after they’ve reported it.
“When victims are most vulnerable,” he said, “their leadership and their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines need to stand by them in solidarity, not turn their back or turn away. We need those assaulted to have people they can count on. It may not be easy, but I need you to be one of them -- in person and online.”
The defense secretary said he realizes that young people live their lives online in many ways and regularly use social media platforms throughout their daily lives.
“That’s why I need you to be leaders,” Carter said, “not just in the line of duty, but online also. I trust most of you would intervene if you saw someone being bullied around campus. But too many people let that stuff slide online -- we know that -- and sometimes offline too.
“We can’t allow those who do the right thing -- either in reporting an assault or standing up to stop one,” he continued, “to be belittled on Facebook, ignored at [the] chow hall, passed over at promotion time, or mocked in the officers club. That’s counter to the ethos you signed up for, and it’s just plain wrong.”
Courage is Infectious
Carter concluded by encouraging the students to do their part and, as leaders of the force of the future, to have the courage to lead with their words and actions.
“Stopping sexual assault will be a focus of my time as secretary of defense,” he said. “But as leaders of the future force, I ask that you too make eradicating these crimes one of your personal missions.
“Courage is infectious,” Carter added. “I’ve been impressed by the courage of those who’ve stepped forward with their stories of assault, and the courage of those who’ve stepped in to protect their fellow service members. Their examples give us all the courage to do our part. And when you do … your courage will, in turn, inspire others.”