After the nation's top military leadership met with President Obama on Thursday to discuss the flood of sexual abuse cases in the military, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday reiterated a message from the president: There's no "silver bullet" to fixing the problem.
"This is cultural, this is an accountability issue," Hagel told reporters Friday. "It's sometimes a structural issue, are we going far enough up and down the ranks... There are so many dimensions to this, I don't think you can come at it just one way."
Hagel reviewed the multiple steps he's taking so far to tackle the issue: On Friday, he had his first phone meeting with a congressionally-mandated sexual review panel, and he officially issued a directive to recertify anyone with any responsibility for sexual abuse or sexual protection offices, including all military recruiters. Hagel and other military leaders are also working with Congress to shape the several bills that congressmen are drafting in response to the crisis.
Hagel described Thursday's meeting with the president as productive, noting that the military leaders gave Mr. Obama "very honest evaluations of what they thought about the issue and clearly articulated what we're all going to do and are doing to address it."
"There wasn't anybody in that room who wasn't disappointed and embarrassed and didn't recognize that in many ways we've failed," he said. "But we all have committed to turn this around and we're going to fix the problem."
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed Hagel's remarks about holding people accountable. Dempsey said he feels "instinctively" that after 10 years of war, the military may be "too forgiving" of its ranks for misconduct.
If a defendant in a sexual abuse case comes forward "with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly a risk we might be a little too forgiving," he said.
"We can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent," Dempsey continued. "Now is the time for moral courage at every level."
Last week, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh caused an outcry when he seemed to dismiss the enormity of the crisis. "Some of this is the hook-up mentality of junior high and high school students now," he said.
Welsh told reporters Friday morning, "In view of the fact that there are victims who took what I said as blaming the victims, boy, I'm sorry."
In reality, Welsh said, "we have a problem with respect for women which leads to sexual assault." He also said the problem of sexual assault in the military "is going to get worse before it gets better in the public view" because if the Air Force is successful in creating a climate in which more victims are willing to come forward, it will look like sexual assaults are on the rise. He called sexual assault in the Air Force a "crisis" and said "to me this is my number one priority."
Some victims say the military system is rigged to blame the victims, since they are expected to report their cases to commanders who may be biased in favor of the perpetrators. In response to that complaint, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other members of Congress are pushing legislation that would allow victims to bypass their commanders.
Hagel said Friday he's spoken with Gillibrand and other senators "a number of times" but that the military is not taking any official position on any piece of legislation at this point.
"We are accommodating House and Senate members on what we think is workable, giving them our best assessment," he said. "We're looking for components of all the legislation that we think make sense."