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Remarks by Secretary Carter on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (Georgetown University)

Good morning, everybody.

Thank you, COL [Michael] Donahue – appreciate that – for your kind words, and for your leadership of the Hoya Battalion.

This is a great crowd, a big crowd for what’s – for many universities and many subsets of the student body – would probably be an early morning. But not for you all, and certainly not for me.  We have cadets here.  We have midshipmen here from Georgetown, the University of Maryland, Howard University, George Mason, and George Washington University all here today.

Wonderful – it's a privilege to be with you.

The reason our military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known is its people.  And taking care of our people…whether that’s in Afghanistan, on bases around the country, or studying here in the nation’s capital…taking care of them is my highest priority.  And I want to thank you, each and every one of you – you and your families – for your hard work and your service.

As you know, there’s a lot going on in the world…and a lot on my plate as Secretary of Defense.  We have challenges in Afghanistan, with ISIL, Russian provocations, cyber attacks.  We’re also working to reform how the Pentagon spends money, recover from 14 years of war, and – at the same time – build the force of the future.

All of that is in front of us.  It’s serious business…and I know all of you – and all those American men and women in uniform, all over the world, who will hear this message – take it seriously.  And we can’t let problems, including the scourge of sexual assault in the ranks, undermine that important work and our vital mission.  Instead, we have to confront them.

Ending sexual assault in the military won’t be easy.  But none of you signed up for easy...instead, you signed up for ROTC.  And in doing so, you volunteered for early mornings, plenty of runs on the Mall, weekends in the field, and classwork on top of already demanding course loads.

Ending sexual assault in the military will require leaders…leaders like you.  You are part of ROTC programs with rich histories of leadership.  Those commissioned out your programs have led troops into battle, become flag officers, served as Army Chief of Staff, and advised presidents and Secretaries of Defense.

You made clear you were a leader the moment you chose ROTC, and you’ll be some of our brightest and best-prepared junior officers when you are commissioned.  Because you’re studying in Washington at a time when sexual assault has gotten much deserved attention on campuses, in government, and in military conversations, you will have the understanding and the urgency to be leaders on this issue – as well as leaders in every other way – for years to come. 

And I am counting on you to become one of those leaders.

Now even though sexual assault is a disgrace in any form, it happens too often across the country, including on college campuses…it’s a particular challenge and a particular disgrace to our institution – the military – for a few very important reasons.

The first is that our military is based on an ethos of honor, and this is dishonorable.  And second, we’re based on trust.  We have to have trust.  You have to trust in the soldier in the foxhole next to you.  You have to trust in the sailor you’re underway with.  You have to trust in the airmen on your wing.  And you have to trust in the Marine on your flank.  And these violations and these assaults are not just violations of the law, they are violations of that trust, which is essential to our mission.

Next, we, of course, have to put people in situations that are unlike any other.  You serve – all serve in a rigid chain of command, and for good reasons.  You’ll likely be separated from your families for extended periods of time.  And you’ll probably, at some point, live and work in austere conditions.  Those types of environments are essential.  But unfortunately, they present opportunities for predators to put our people at risk and compromise our missions and our values.  And so, our institution has a particular reason to combat sexual assault.

And last, we need to recruit the force of the future, and sexual assault is an issue for many of our potential recruits.  They care about it.  I was at my old high school a few weeks ago in an auditorium like this, talking to students.  And one of the students asked me about this issue.  She asked whether it was safe for her – she wanted to be in the military – was it safe for her to do?  And I was sorry that she had to ask that question.  But anyway, it’s an issue.  And we can’t let sexual assault make our all-volunteer force a less attractive path for the next generation of talented, dedicated individuals that we need.

For all of these reasons and the threat sexual assault poses to the well-being of our men and women, the Department of Defense has been working pretty hard on this issue now for the past several years, implementing over 100 congressionally-mandated provisions and fifty Secretary of Defense directives.  

We’ve made some progress.  We’ve seemed to have seen some decrease in the estimated number of assaults, and we’ve seemed to have seen an 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.  And two of them – too few of them, excuse me…particularly men, reported these incidents as assaults.

So, altogether that's 18,900 too many.  No man or woman who serves in the United States military should ever be sexually assaulted.

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 have spent more time and 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 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.
  • And we’ve learned that even the perception that those reporting, trying to prevent, or responding to an assault may be retaliated against – may be retaliated against is a challenge for all of us.


We’ve also learned that in addition to all our institutional efforts, eliminating sexual assault requires individual action.  We need leaders in the ranks with the courage to stand up to 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.  

One key to prevention is to understand that sexual assaults often occur in environments where crude and offensive behavior, unwanted sexual attention, coercion, and sexual harassment are tolerated, ignored, or condoned.  These behaviors detract from our mission and put our people at risk, and you have to be a part of the solution.

Now, it won’t always be easy.  But to learn how, I encourage you to take a look at our Sexual Assault Prevention Strategy we released last May.  It provides ways to create – for you as leaders – an appropriate culture, meet standards of behavior, and uphold our military core values.  

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, law enforcement, a chaplain, or from a more senior officer. 

Sadly, for too many of those assaulted, the crime is made worse by how he or she is treated after the attack…after they’ve reported it. 

When victims are most vulnerable, their leadership and their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines need to stand by them in solidarity, not turn their back or turn away.  We need those assaulted to have people they can count on.  It may not be easy, but I need you to be one of them…in person and also online.

I know young people live their lives online, in many ways.  You Snapchat…you tweet your every move, you share the day’s news on Facebook, you Instagram pictures from events like the military ball you had this weekend.

And that’s why I need you to be leaders not just in the line of duty, but online also.  I trust most of you would intervene if you saw someone being bullied around the campus.  But too many people let that stuff slide online – we know that – and sometimes offline, too.  We can’t allow those who do the right thing – either in reporting an assault or standing up to stop one – to be belittled on Facebook, ignored at chow hall, passed over at promotion time, or mocked in the officer’s club.  That’s counter to the ethos you signed up for.  And it’s just plain wrong.

Now, our nation is looking to the Defense Department to lead boldly on sexual assault because they admire our institution and its values and its culture of learning.  And every one of us has to know and do our part. 

Stopping sexual assault will be a focus of my time as Secretary of Defense.  But as leaders of the future force, I ask that you too make eradicating these crimes one of your personal missions.  Foster a culture of prevention, response, and accountability…dignity, respect, and integrity.  Communicate clearly about what’s right and what’s wrong in everything you do – not just by your words, but also by your actions.  Aim to make a difference in your units, throughout the force, and around the country.

None of this is easy, but you won’t be alone.  You’ve made great friends at ROTC and at your schools.  Each of you will be a leader in this effort and support each other in this fight, as in others.  And I want you to know I’m standing with you and expecting that of you.

Courage is infectious.  I’ve been impressed by the courage of those who stepped forward with their stories of assault, and the courage of those who stepped in to protect their fellow servicemembers.  Their examples give us all the courage to do our part.  And when you do…because you do…your courage will, in turn, inspire others.

Thank you.  And now let me take some questions.