WASHINGTON — The Air Force's top general said Friday that sexual assaults in his branch of the military typically involve alcohol use and can be traced to a lack of respect for women.
"We have a problem with respect for women that leads to many of the situations that result in sexual assault in our Air Force," Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters in a lengthy interview in his Pentagon offices.
He spoke one day after he and other military leaders were summoned to the White House to discuss the sexual assault problem with President Barack Obama, who has expressed impatience with the Pentagon's failure to solve it.
Welsh said combatting the problem, which he characterized as a crisis, is his No. 1 priority as the Air Force chief of staff. He said he reviews every reported case of sexual assault; last year there were 792 in the Air Force.
Welsh addressed criticism about his comment last week, in response to questions at a congressional hearing, that the problem can be explained in part by a "hook-up mentality" in the wider society. Some said his remark implied that the blame rests mainly with victims.
"If I had this to do over again, I would take more time to answer the question and not try to compress it," he said, adding that his point was that every person who enters the Air Force needs to be instructed in "this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity and value of every individual."
"Now, I didn't say it that way in the hearing, and I wish I had because I think it gave, especially victims, the opportunity for someone to interpret what I said as blaming the victims," he said, adding that as a result, "I am sorry about that because there is nothing that is farther from the truth."
Obama said after Thursday's meeting with the military leaders that he is determined to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault in the military, while cautioning that it will take a long and sustained effort by all military members.
"There is no silver bullet to solving this problem," Obama said.
"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," he told reporters.
Senior military officers are speaking about the problem with increasing bluntness and expressions of regret. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday called it a "crisis" in the ranks, and on Thursday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, publicly acknowledged his service's efforts are "failing."
"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said.
"Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be," the president said.
Those summoned to the White House by Obama included not just Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Dempsey and the chiefs of each military service but also the civilian heads of each service and senior enlisted advisers.
"I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what's happened," Obama said.
The president added that because assault victims may be more likely now to come forward with complaints, the number of reported assaults may increase in the short run.
"I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we're also starting to fix the problem and we've highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it," Obama said.
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