Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens as President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting to discuss sexual assault in the military in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is pledging to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault in the military while cautioning that it will take a long and sustained effort by all military members.
"There is no silver bullet to solving this problem," Obama said Thursday after meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the top brass from all the military services.
"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," he told reporters.
Senior military officers are speaking about the problem with increasing bluntness and expressions of regret. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday called it a "crisis" in the ranks, and on Thursday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, publicly acknowledged his service's efforts are "failing."
"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said.
"Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be," the president said.
Those summoned to the White House by Obama included not just Hagel, Dempsey and the chiefs of each military service but also the civilian heads of each service and senior enlisted advisers.
"I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what's happened," Obama said.
The president added that because assault victims may be more likely now to come forward with complaints, the number of reported assaults may increase in the short run.
"I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we're also starting to fix the problem and we've highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it," Obama said.
The problem, which has plagued the military for decades, has been thrust to the fore by recent cases, including that of an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office but was himself arrested for sexual battery.
On Thursday, Army officials said the manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., had been relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife. The program he managed was meant to prevent sexual harassment and assault and encourage equal opportunity.
Hagel has said resolving the problem of sexual assault in the military is one of his top priorities, as did his predecessor, Leon Panetta. Hagel is expected to make public in coming days a written directive that spells out steps the Pentagon will take to retrain, rescreen and recertify those who lead the military's sexual assault prevention and response programs.
Earlier Thursday, Odierno, the Army chief, issued a public message to all soldiers in which he said the "bedrock of trust" between soldiers and their leaders has been violated by a recent string of misconduct cases.
He said the Army demonstrated competence and courage through nearly 12 years of war. "Today, however, the Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment," he wrote.
"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission," Odierno said.
Allegations of sexual assault in the military have triggered outrage from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes.
The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, the Pentagon news conference was postponed until Friday.
A Pentagon report last week estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
That report, and a recent series of arrests and other sexual assault problems across the military, have triggered a rush of initiatives from the Pentagon and proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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