Hagel tells Navy grads to help fight sexual assault

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelHillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers National security leaders, advocacy groups urge Congress to send election funds to states The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE urged U.S. Naval Academy cadets to behave ethically and help prevent sexual harassment and assault within the ranks in a graduation address Friday.

"We’re all accountable. From new recruits to four-star admirals and generals, from second lieutenants to the secretary of Defense,” said Hagel in Annapolis, Md., at the commencement ceremony.

“We all have to step up and take action when we see something that hurts our people and our values,” he added.

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Addressing the graduating cadets, Hagel touched on a number of other recent controversies as well, including cheating scandals involving Air Force and Navy brass and charges that officers abused their privileges.

"At times you'll be pressured to succeed at any cost. When that happens, it sometimes clouds the internal compass we each have that helps us distinguish right from wrong," he said.

"Some people regularly check that compass. Some do not – resulting in ethical, moral, or professional lapses that stain our force’s honor, damage our institutions’ credibility, and harm the nation’s security," Hagel continued.

The secretary also alluded to an ongoing scandal involving nuclear officers who were found to be cheating on proficiency tests this year.

"We’ve seen all too often that small actions can reverberate in large ways – whether it’s sharing answers on a test, looking the other way when someone denigrates another human being, or taking advantage of the trappings of office," he said. 

Hagel urged new graduates to be compassionate to those within their chain of command, as the Pentagon attempts to tackle suicide and mental health issues. 

"When they come to you for help, it doesn’t mean they’re weak. It means they’re strong, because asking for help when you need it takes courage, and strength," he said. 

Under his tenure, Hagel has made focusing on sexual assault and ethical misbehavior two of his top priorities. 

In March, he appointed Navy Rear Adm. Margaret "Peg" Klein to serve as his senior adviser for military professionalism. 

"They need leaders with compassion and humility, leaders they know and trust to go the extra mile for their people," he said. 

"You will be that kind of leader. You will be the ones who lead from the bottom up, and who will help bring about a renewed sense of our collective responsibility to take care of each other, watch out for each other,” said Hagel.