ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that new officers will be counted on to lead the fight against sexual assault, remain ethical under tough circumstances and help people in the military facing mental health issues.
Hagel told the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy that students have seen how sexual assault can destroy trust and confidence at the core of the military. He told them to use their experience to make sure everyone is treated respectfully.
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. Athird man was acquitted and graduated on Friday.
"You've seen what these crimes do to the survivors, their families, institutions and communities," Hagel said. "You know how they tear people and units apart, how they 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 make sure everyone, everyone, is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."
Hagel also told graduates they will face tremendous pressures in their new leadership roles to succeed at any cost. That, he said, sometimes clouds judgment of what's right from wrong. In February, the Navy said it was investigating cheating allegations against about one-fifth of its trainers at a school for naval nuclear power reactor operators at a nuclear propulsion school at Charleston, S.C.
"We see all too often that small actions can reverberate in large ways, whether it's sharing answers on a test, looking the other way when someone denigrates another human being or taking advantage of the trappings in your office," Hagel said.
He told the newly commissioned officers to remember that their actions will define them in the eyes of everyone around them.
"As a leader you are a role model — maybe your biggest responsibility of all — and you have the power to inspire and encourage others to do the right thing," Hagel said.
Hagel also told graduates they will lead people struggling with mental health issues as the nation concludes 13 years of war. He noted the deaths of three fellow students at the Naval Academy in recent years as an example of the kind of loss sailors and Marines are experiencing after losing friends to combat, accidents or suicide.
"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," Hagel said. "They need to be helped. They need leaders with compassion and humility, leaders they know and trust will go the extra mile for them."
A total of 1,068 students graduated, including 849 men and 219 women. There were 784 commissioned as Navy ensigns and 265 commissioned as 2nd lieutenants in the Marine Corps. Seven students graduated who weren't commissioned, and there were 12 graduates from other countries.