Outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel criticized the U.S. military in a speech on Friday, acknowledging a culture of retaliation against service members who report sexual assaults.
Speaking at the U.S. Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit at a naval air facility in Maryland, Hagel called for the military to create an environment where "social retaliation is not unfairly put on victims."
The speech, which will likely be Hagel's last public address as secretary of defense, did not offer specific examples of how to change the military's culture, but encouraged service members to hold each other accountable.
"If you see something, if you sense something, it is your responsibility to step in and deal with it," Hagel said. "Stop it. If you can't stop it, get somebody who will stop it. Be aware. Don't walk away."
"It won't be an Air Force or a military free of sexual assault unless we come at it from a basis of the humanity and the health of the force," Hagel said.
As sexual assault in the military has become part of the national conversation, military leaders and the Defense Department have become more active in ending military rape.
Hagel's speech Friday was before about 150 active duty officers, air national guard, and reserve members as part of a conference on topics related to military sexual violence.
"Retaliation comes in an environment because the personal commitment of the individual allows it to happen, then it won't get fixed. We've got to come at it in every way," said Hagel. He added that "You could pass all the laws you want, that isn't going to fix the problem of retaliation."
"We have a unique opportunity because of how we are structured, how we are organized … that gives us possibilities and avenues of approach to this that no other institution or community of families has," Hagel said. "We've got to fix this problem — it won't get fixed in Congress, in the White House, or anywhere else."
Reports of sexual assault in the military jumped 50% between 2012-2013, according to a Pentagon report, which could result either from an increased number of assaults or from more people reporting the crimes.
In 2014, 62% of the women who reported a sexual assault said that they faced backlash from higher ranking officers or another form of retaliation.