JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — Efforts to eliminate the baneful issue of sexual assault “must be personal,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in closing remarks at the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit last week.
Hagel said the military community is unique in its raised standards and the expectation that service members will commit to each other both on and off the battlefield.
“We should fundamentally begin taking care of each other in personal relationships and wherever else,” Hagel said. “If we don’t understand that dimension of this crime, then we will miss the whole point.”
The secretary noted that, absent personal accountability and responsibility, sexual assault will persist no matter how many laws, restrictions, directives or resources are created.
“It won’t be an Air Force or a military free of sexual assault unless we come at it from a basis of the humanity and the health of the force,” Hagel said. “We have to trust each other.”
While he cited “encouraging progress” in stanching the issue over the last year, Hagel acknowledged more can be done, particularly in areas such as social retaliation, which he said stems from the overall environment.
“You cannot take the responsibility and the accountability for this out of the chain of command,” Hagel asserted. “If you see something, if you sense something, it’s your responsibility to step in and deal with it — stop it, or if you can’t stop it, get somebody who will stop it.”
Hagel praised the military as a whole for its transparency and recognition of the problem, but said awareness is just the starting point.
“College campuses, other areas that are dealing with this issue, are looking to the military for help … because we have institutionalized this as a huge challenge and a priority for who we are,” Hagel said.
Ultimately, Hagel said, the Air Force and members of all services are building a legacy as role models and leaders with a tremendous effect on the future.
“We have a unique opportunity because of how we are structured, how we are organized … that gives us possibilities and avenues of approach to this that no other institution or community of families has,” Hagel said. “We’ve got to fix this problem — it won’t get fixed in Congress, in the White House or anywhere else.”