WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army's top officer acknowledged on Thursday that his service is failing in its effort to stop sexual assaults, as he and the nation's other top defense leaders were summoned to the White House to discuss the militarywide problem.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, issued a public message to all soldiers in which he said the "bedrock of trust" between soldiers and their leaders has been violated by a recent string of misconduct cases.
He said the Army demonstrated competence and courage through nearly 12 years of war. "Today, however, the Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment," he wrote.
"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission," he said.
"We are entrusted with ensuring the health and welfare of America's sons and daughters," he added. "There are no bystanders in this effort. Our soldiers, their families and the American people are counting on us to lead the way in solving this problem within our ranks."
President Barack Obama planned to meet Thursday afternoon with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the civilian and military leaders of each service and the military's senior enlisted advisers to discuss the issue, the Pentagon announced. Vice President Joe Biden also was attending.
Allegations of sexual assault in the military have triggered outrage from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Wednesday.
"That's a crisis," Dempsey said in remarks during a flight from Europe to Washington that were reported by the American Forces Press Service, which is the Pentagon's internal news agency. Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."
Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."
The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, they said the Pentagon news conference was being postponed until Friday.
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes - the second military member facing similar accusations - the Pentagon said Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
But Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.