(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told a group of ROTC cadets on Wednesday that sexual assault is a "particular challenge and a particular disgrace" to the U.S. military.
He noted that last year, far more men (10,400) than women (8,500) "experienced unwanted sexual contact."
"We've made some progress," Carter said. "We seem to have seen some decrease in the estimated number of assaults, and we seem to have seen some increase in those reporting an assault.
"But, last year, we estimated that at least 18,900 servicemembers -- 10,400 men and 8,500 women -- experienced unwanted sexual contact."
Carter added that "too few" men reported the incidents as sexual assault.
"So, altogether that's 18,900 too many. No man or woman who serves in the United States military should ever be sexually assaulted."
Carter said the U.S. military can't allow sexual assault to make the all-volunteer force unattractive to the next generation of fighters that it needs.
"One reason the military is among the most admired institutions in the United States is because of our code of honor and our code of trust, and also because we're known as a learning organization. We strive to understand and to correct our flaws.
"And as we spend more time and more resources to better understand sexual assault in the ranks, we've learned some lessons. And here are a few of them:
"We've learned that prevention is the most important way to eradicate sexual assault. And we've learned the prevention requires us not just to stop assaults, but also to stamp out permissive behaviors like tolerance for degrading language, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment that too often contribute to and lead to sexual assaults."
Carter also mentioned retaliation against those who report, try to prevent or respond to sexual assault.
Eliminating sexual assault requires "leaders in the ranks with the courage to stand up to the behaviors that contribute to sexual assault, the courage to step up, step in and stop assaults, and the courage to act when others try to retaliate against those reporting, responding to, or preventing an assault."
He told the cadets they have to be part of the solution.
"We have serious work to do, and I need you to say 'enough' -- enough to dirty jokes, to excessive drinking, to hazing, to sexual advances, and to any suggestion that coercion is appropriate.
"I need you to intervene when you think an assault may occur. And if, for some reason, you're concerned about taking action, I need you to get help from a friend, from law enforcement, from a chaplain, or for a more -- from a more senior officer."
Carter said the nation is looking to the Defense Department to "lead boldly on sexual assault," and he promised that "stopping sexual assault will be a focus of my time as secretary of defense."
One of the female cadets asked Carter how opening combat positions to women squares with the military's effort to end sexual assault.
"Obviously, as we get women into more unaccustomed positions, maybe dangerous, isolated positions, maybe positions where they are fewer, in relation to the number of men, it opens up opportunities for predators," Carter replied.
"So on the one hand, it can lead in that direction. On the other hand, I think it kind of signifies to -- everyone will get used to working, men and women together, to defend the country and do these things.
"And I can't help but believe for many people, they'll learn better how to conduct themselves, how to interact across gender lines and so forth. And that will contribute to prevention and eventually eradication of sexual assaults."
Carter told another cadet he thinks "most" and "maybe all" positions in the military soon will be open to women:
"I don't know. And the reason I don't know is that the services that are working through the practicality of some of the most difficult MOSs (Military Occupation Specialties) and the most difficult -- most difficult from the point of view of reconciling traditional, at least, gender roles with combat effectiveness, unit cohesion and those kinds of things.
"Those are the things that people are grappling with."
I think they're grappling with them in good faith. I'm certainly grappling with them with an intention to do the maximum practical, because I think, for way too long, we have -- I think we've underestimated how well we can do. And I talked about us being a learning organization. We can learn this, too. So I'm pretty optimistic."
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