Pentagon chief urges end to sex assault 'scourge'

NEW YORK (AFP) - US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told cadets Saturday that they must stamp out the "scourge" of sexual assault within the military, as US leaders grappled with the growing problem.

Mr Hagel's call came amid a wave of high-profile sexual assaults in the military has prompted outrage and calls for new legislation.

Next month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the heads of all five military branches will make a rare appearance together before lawmakers to testify on the issue and proposals to address it.

Speaking to newly commissioned officers at a graduation ceremony at the prestigious West Point military academy in New York, Mr Hagel emphasised it would be their responsibility as rising leaders to "bring the best out" of themselves and their fellow soldiers.

"Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts," the Pentagon leader told more than a thousand graduating cadets. "This scourge must be stamped out.

"The most important part of leadership is taking responsibility for your actions and decisions and holding all around you accountable," he added.

The issue strikes close to home for the West Point community, after an instructor was accused of filming some of the female cadets without permission, including while they were showering.

West Point has around 4,500 students, of whom 15 per cent are women.

Mr Hagel's remarks were delivered a day after President Barack Obama made a similar plea to the graduating class at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, warning that sexual assaults "threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong."

"That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes because they've got no place in the greatest military on earth," he said.

Reports surfaced earlier this month that a soldier who worked in a rape prevention programme had been accused of forcing a subordinate into prostitution.

And an Air Force officer in charge of his service's sexual assault prevention office was arrested near the Pentagon for allegedly assaulting a woman.

A Pentagon report issued this month showed a sharp rise in reports of "unwanted sexual contact" over the past two years, with prevention efforts so far failing to stem the tide.

Reports of sexual violence rose six per cent a year, jumping to nearly 3,400 cases in 2012 alone.

Mr Hagel, who served in the army during the Vietnam war, said lessons learned during military service must shape soldiers as they help transform the all-volunteer force.

He urged the graduates to confront and put an end to the problems of alcohol and drug abuse, the growing number of suicides and the increasing number of soldiers and veterans with mental health problems that are plaguing the military after a decade of war.

"You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious and destructive forces, but rather be the generation of leaders that stop it," he told the young officers.

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