ANNAPOLIS, Md. — President Obama used a commencement speech before Naval Academy graduates Friday to urge them to follow an “inner compass” and to warn that rising numbers of sexual assaults in the military threatened to erode America’s faith in the armed forces.
The president praised the military as the nation’s “most trusted institution,” but took note of the recent cases in which service members have been charged with sexual assault. He said those people “threaten the trust and discipline which makes our military strong.”
“We need your honor, that inner compass that guides you,” the president said, essentially using the platform at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to scold those who have strayed from that direction recently. “Even more than physical courage, we need your moral courage — the strength to do what’s right, even when it’s unpopular.”
Obama delivered his remarks under cloudy, drizzly skies to 1,047 graduates, most of whom will receive commissions as officers in the Navy and Marine Corps.
Before the president spoke, Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, said jokingly that the graduates had completed a journey “you began once you turned down your acceptance to West Point.”
It was the second time Obama had addressed graduates of the academy, and he was welcomed with enthusiastic cheers as he congratulated them on becoming the military’s latest officers. He echoed his remarks from a day earlier, telling the graduates that they enter the services at a time of transition in the war against terrorism.
“We still need to conduct precise, targeted strikes against terrorists before they kill our citizens,” he said, noting the end of the Iraq War and next year’s expected end of the US role in Afghanistan. But, he said, “we need to stay ready for the whole range of threats.”
Four years after the president’s first visit here, the specter of the growing number of sexual assaults in the armed forces gave the speech more of a somber tone. Obama said that incidents of sexual assault threatened to undermine the military’s credibility just as failures of integrity undermine trust in politicians, financial institutions, and government workers.
“As we’ve seen again in recent days,” Obama said, apparently referring to the actions of officials at the Internal Revenue Service in targeting conservative groups, “It only takes the misconduct of a few to erode the public’s trust in their institutions.”
He referred directly to the sexual assaults, telling the midshipmen that “if we want to restore the trust the American people deserve to have in their institutions, then we all have to do our part.”
The issue has become a major concern following several incidents, some of them involving military officials who were supposed to be in charge of preventing sexual assaults. A Pentagon study this month estimated that as many as 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year.
After summoning his top military officials to the White House this month, Obama said they told him they were ashamed of the behavior of some in the services.
“They care about this and they are angry about it,” Obama said. “I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what’s happened.”
At the Naval Academy, Obama also affirmed his plans to redefine the way America wages the fight against terrorism. In a speech at the National Defense University on Thursday, the president said the country needed to continue to attack terror cells while getting off the war footing it has been on for more than a decade.
That message is most likely to be of intense interest to the graduates as they prepare for a military careers. Obama has largely ended the war in Iraq and is winding down US involvement in Afghanistan, where troops are slated to come home by the end of next year.
Concerns about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are not new. In 1991, dozens of women were assaulted by members of the Navy and the Marines at a Las Vegas Hotel where the Tailhook Association was having its annual convention. Tailhook is a nonprofit association that supports naval aviators.
The resulting scandal raised the issue of sexual assaults in the military to new heights. But critics said too few senior leaders in the military were found culpable for a culture that allowed the assaults to occur.