Chuck Hagel: New officers must help eliminate sexual assault

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says new officers need to lead the fight against sexual assault and help people in the military facing mental health issues.

Hagel told the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy on Friday that students have seen how sexual assault can destroy trust and confidence at the heart of the military. He told them to use their experience to make sure everyone is treated respectfully.

"You will all be counted on to lead in helping eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault of your sisters and brothers in uniform," he said. "You've seen what these crimes do to the survivors, their families, institutions and communities. You know how they tear people and units apart, how they destroy the bonds of confidence and trust [at] the very core, the center, the heart, of our military."

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"We're all accountable," he added. "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."

In the past year, the academy has seen the prosecution of three academy football players accused of sexually assaulting a classmate. Charges against two were dropped. The third was acquitted.

Hagel also told graduates they will lead people struggling with mental health issues as the nation concludes 13 years of war. He said those people must be embraced, not stigmatized.

"When they come to you for help, it doesn't mean they're weak. It means they're strong. Because asking for help when you need it takes courage and strength," he said. "What we need to remember -- what our entire country needs to remember -- is that these brave individuals don't need to be avoided or stigmatized. They need to be embraced. They need to be helped. They need leaders, leaders with compassion and humility."