The stage fell silent during President Obama’s Wednesday speech addressing the troops at Camp Pendleton in California—a marked difference from the whoops and cheers that punctuated a number of the president’s lines.
“I want you to hear it directly from me, the Commander-in -Chief,” Obama said, as the room grew silent. “It undermines what this military stands for and it undermines what the Marine Corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within our units. And that’s why we are going to work together, all of us, to stop these crimes of sexual assault and uphold the honor and the integrity that defines the finest military on earth. And that message is coming all the way from the top.”
The president and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have been under pressure from lawmakers to address what they’ve called the “scourge” of sexual assaults in the military, which has reached epidemic proportions at an estimated 26,000 cases per year.
According to a recent Pentagon report, a small fraction – only around 3,000 – of those cases have been reported. At the heart of debate on Capitol Hill this summer has been the quest of lawmakers like New York Sen. Kirsten GIllibrand to remove the military chain of command from dealing with sexual assault cases, citing victims’ fears of retaliation. The military brass has held that unit cohesion requires keeping all cases, including sexual violence, within the chain of command.