As senior midshipmen at the Naval Academy waited Friday to be commissioned the newest officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said they must work to stamp out sexual assault in the military.
Speaking during commencement exercises for the academy, where the investigation of an alleged assault on a female midshipmen drew national attention over the past year and led to changes in the military justice system, Hagel called on the graduates to use their leadership skills to confront a challenge that has roiled the military.
"We're all accountable," Hagel told the midshipmen at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. "From new recruits to four-star admirals and generals, from second lieutenants to the secretary of defense, we all have to step up and take action when we see something that hurts our people and our values."
Hagel did not refer specifically to the academy case, in which three members of the academy football team were accused of assaulting a fellow midshipman at an off-campus party after she drank heavily in April 2012.
But he said the Class of 2014 knows such incidents "tear people and units apart" and "destroy the bonds of confidence and trust that lie at the very core, the center, the heart of our military."
"Take this knowledge and do whatever you can to ensure everyone, everyone, is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," he told the midshipmen.
The alleged victim was among the 1,068 who graduated Friday. She was commissioned an ensign in the Navy.
She declined, through her attorneys, to be interviewed. The Baltimore Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
None of the accused was convicted. One was not charged and has now graduated and been commissioned an ensign in the Navy. Charges against the second were dropped before they went to court-martial. The third was acquitted this year. The last two have left the academy.
The case led to changes in the way such charges are investigated. At a preliminary hearing last year, the alleged victim spent more than 20 hours over several days answering questions from prosecutors and attorneys for the accused. Congress subsequently passed legislation to prevent alleged victims from being forced to testify during such proceedings.
The case was one of several that have called attention to the role of the commander in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault in the military. Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, who as superintendent of the academy had the sole authority to bring charges against the accused, was criticized at several turns for his handling of the case.
Advocates for further change to the military justice system say it is rife with conflicts of interest. They want to take prosecutions out of the chain of command — a step that military leaders and their supporters in Congress have resisted.
The Pentagon reported this month a 50 percent increase in reports of sexual assault from 2012 to 2013 — a sign military leaders say shows growing confidence among the troops in how reports are handled.
Critics say too few reports are substantiated, and many assailants still go unpunished. All sides agree that the great majority of assaults still go unreported.
Hagel's remarks Friday came nearly a year to the day after President Barack Obama told midshipmen that "those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong."
The Class of 2014 included 784 new Navy ensigns and 265 Marine Corps second lieutenants. Seven did not receive commissions; 12 graduates were from foreign countries.
About 30,000 people attended the commencement.
Hagel focused the bulk of his 19-minute address on leadership. As America emerges from 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, the new officers will shape the military's future.
He called on them to forge bonds with those they lead, to understand those who have different perspectives and to practice humility.
"By virtue of your unique experiences here at the Naval Academy, you have much to be proud of and confident about," Hagel said, "but if confidence gives way to arrogance, both your superiors and subordinates will respond."
"Your actions will define you in the eyes of everyone around you," he said.
After the ceremony, 2nd Lt. Tucker Hull of Charlotte, N.C., called Hagel a "stand-up guy," and said he appreciated the secretary's advice about leadership.
Navy Ensign Cameron Benner of Selinsgrove, Pa., a future pilot, was still coming to grips with the fact that he was an academy graduate.
"It really feels surreal," he said. "I don't think it's still sunk in yet."