President Barack Obama challenged graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy to uphold the honor of the armed forces, saying reports of sexual assaults in the military and misconduct on the battlefield threaten to tarnish the public’s trust.
Obama said misdeeds and “wild risk-taking” in the financial industry, scandals in government and cynicism in politics have helped breed doubts about the nation’s institutions. While the military retains the esteem of Americans, the president said that can be eroded as well.
“We need you to uphold the highest standards of integrity and character,” the president said at a commencement ceremony for 1,046 sailors and Marines at the academy in Annapolis, Md. “It only takes the misconduct of a few to further erode the peoples trust in their government.”
The president’s remarks followed by a day his national security speech in Washington where he redefined U.S. counterterrorism strategy with a policy that would rein in the secret drone program and move toward closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It marked a shift toward a day when the broad war against terrorist groups would wind down.
Still, Obama said today, “We need to stay ready for the full range of threats.” Even with budget restraints, the U.S. “will always maintain our military superiority.
Obama made reference to a spate of cases involving alleged sexual improprieties that have roiled the military.
The most recent involved an Army sergeant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who allegedly videotaped female cadets without their consent while they showered. Earlier this month, three officers assigned to programs to prevent sexual abuse were removed from their posts after allegations of wrongdoing.
Lawmakers from both parties, led by women in the House of Representatives and Senate, are demanding that the military change its system so that independent military prosecutors, instead of commanding officers, pursue sexual assault cases and other major crimes.
‘‘Institutions do not fail in a vacuum,’’ Obama said. ‘‘Institutions are made up of people,’’ and the misconduct of a few can have ripple effects.
The sexual assaults ‘‘threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong,’’ he said.
Graduation ceremonies were missing one element today: There was no traditional flyover from the Navy’s Blue Angels, whose high-speed precision timing have wowed crowds since 1946.
The U.S. Navy announced April 9 the cancellation of 32 Blue Angel performances that had been scheduled this year because of automatic federal budget cuts, known as sequestration. The cancellation saves the Navy about $20 million a year, spokeswoman Katie Kelly said.
The pilots, based at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., are conducting only minimum flight hours to remain qualified in their F/A-18 Hornets, the Navy said.
The Naval Academy was founded in 1845 by then-Secretary George Bancroft. Its alumni include former President Jimmy Carter and former Senator James Webb of Virginia, both Democrats, and former Republican presidential candidate and current U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Obama’s speech today was his third and final commencement address this year. He also spoke at the graduations at Morehouse College in Atlanta on May 19 and Ohio State University in Columbus on May 5.
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