President Barack Obama said U.S. military leaders told him they are "ashamed'' of their failure to end sexual abuse in the armed services. Obama pledged to take all efforts to halt the abuse, which he said undermines the trust the military needs to be effective.
"They care about this, and they are angry about it,'' Obama said at the White House after he summoned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and other leaders to discuss the problem. A Pentagon report that says up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year.
Earlier Thursday, the Army's top officer acknowledged that his service is failing in its effort to stop the assaults.
"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission,'' Gen. Ray Odierno said.
In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Obama said he wants the military and others to explore every good idea to fix the problem. He said Hagel would consult with other militaries around the world.
Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task -- especially with women entering more combat roles.
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes -- the second military member facing similar accusations -- the Pentagon said Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the growing problem.
But Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training.'' Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period,'' he said.
A new case emerged Thursday evening: The manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell in Kentucky was arrested in a domestic dispute and relieved of his post, authorities said. Lt. Col. Darin Haas turned himself in to police on charges of violating an order of protection, and stalking. He was removed from his program position, said Master Sgt. Pete Mayes, a spokesman for the Army post.
Experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes, both in law and in military culture.
The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, the Pentagon news conference was postponed until Friday.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,'' Dempsey said Wednesday in remarks during a flight from Europe to Washington that were reported by the American Forces Press Service, the Pentagon's internal news agency. Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force,'' he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect.''