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Obama challenges Naval Academy graduates to help restore trust in institutions

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama speaks at the commencement ceremony for the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Friday, May 24, 2013.

In a speech to the graduating class of 2013 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., President Barack Obama challenged the 1,047 graduates to “live with integrity” and help restore trust in a military that has been stained by recent charges of sexual assault, just as other American institutions have been shaken by misconduct. “We need your honor… we need values now more than ever,” he urged them. “Even more than physical courage, we need your moral courage.”

“Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong,” he said.

He drew a parallel between financial chicanery on Wall Street, the recent Internal Revenue Service scandal of targeted scrutiny of conservative groups, and the sexual assault incidents in the military, saying “If we want to restore the trust that the American people deserve to have in their institutions, all of us have to do our part -- and those of us in  leadership, myself included -- have to constantly strive to remain worthy of the public trust.”

“In recent decades many Americans have lost confidence in many of the institutions that help shape our society,” Obama noted. But “institutions do not fail in a vacuum. Institutions are made up of people – individuals – and we’ve seen how the actions of a few can undermine the integrity of those institutions .”

“Our military remains the most trusted institution in America,” he declared. “When others have shirked their responsibilities our armed offices have met every mission we’ve given them.”

But he added, “we must acknowledge that even here – even in our military -- we’ve seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide.”

In recent weeks members of Congress have reacted in dismay to spate of military sexual misconduct scandals, including two cases in which the officers in charge of dealing with sexual assault cases were allegedly involved in crimes against women.

A recent Defense Department report estimated that 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in Fiscal Year 2012, a 37 percent increase from FY2011.

Two bills have been introduced to try to remedy the sexual assault problem. One by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D- Mo., would require a dismissal or a dishonorable discharge for a member of the military found guilty of rape or sexual assault.

Another bill offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. would remove the decision whether to take a case to special or general court-martial out of the military chain of command and give discretion to military prosecutors for crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement, except crimes uniquely military in nature.

In his commencement address at the United States Naval Academy, President Obama touched upon the growing military sexual assault cases, telling graduates, "We have to be determined to stop these crimes. They've got no place in the greatest military on earth."

“Just as you’ve changed over the past four years, so too have the challenges facing our military,” Obama told the Annapolis graduates. He touched on the themes he had addressed on Thursday when he delivered a major speech at the National Defense University re-orienting his strategy on terrorism.

He said Friday, “Let me say as clearly as I can: the United States of America will always maintain our military superiority, and as your commander in chief, I am going to keep fighting to give you the equipment and support required to meet the missions we ask of you and also make sure you are getting the pay and benefits and support that you deserve.”

The president said he would carry out a ship-building schedule that would achieve a 300-ship fleet with capacities that exceed the power of the next dozen nations’ navies combined.

Obama said in his speech Thursday that while “our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” that “this war, like all wars, must end.” He also warned against being “drawn into more wars we don't need to fight.”

Obama narrowed the parameters for the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to kill terrorists overseas and renewed his efforts to persuade Congress to agree to close the Guantanamo detention site in Cuba.

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