Chuck Hagel: Combatting sexual assault in military 'as high a priority as there is'

Martha Raddatz, Richard Coolidge & Jordyn Phelps
Power PlayersMay 16, 2014

On the Radar

At a time when sexual assault in the military is at an all-time high – with more than 5,000 reported incidents last year – Chuck Hagel says that fixing the problem is one of his highest priorities as defense secretary.

“If we can't protect our own people, then we're going to have a problem,” Hagel said. “We owe it to each other; it is accountability; it is a responsibility of all leaders at every level to deal with this.”

Hagel took “On the Radar” along for a visit to Naval Station Great Lakes, home of the Navy’s only boot camp that trains over 40,000 recruits annually. We got an exclusive look at classes that are teaching new recruits how to recognize, deal with and prevent sexual assault. But Hagel has acknowledged tackling the problem will be a long road.

“We're not where we need to be yet. We will get there,” he said. “I've made it as high a priority as there is. I meet with all our sexual assault prevention office people once a week for an hour.”

“Our institution … is a different enterprise, the military, from any other,” Hagel also said. “That doesn't mean that they should not comply with laws. Sexual assault is a crime, pure, simple, no matter if it's on a military base or college campus. So you start there.”

Hagel, having now led the Defense Department for more than a year, said he’s still getting used to the responsibilities of the job.

“I don't think I’ll ever feel very comfortable, this is a huge enterprise,” Hagel said. “I'm learning every day. I set out to get to know the institution, the people, the leaders, as quickly as I could, at the same time dealing with crisis after crisis as they come.”

But despite the learning curve, Hagel told a group of naval recruits that he enjoys the challenge.

“To have opportunity serve your country is a great privilege,” Hagel said. “Every day I walk up to the Pentagon, and I look back over the river toward the Congress and Washington, and I think this day is a day I will never have back, so I need to make it count -- knowing you are here and have opportunity to shape things for the better, make the world better."

For more of the interview with Hagel, and to see behind-the-scenes footage with the secretary, check out this episode of “On the Radar.”

ABC News’ Andy Fies, Alexandra Dukakis, Luis Martinez, Brian Hartman, Tom Thornton, Bob Brant, and Robert Brant contributed to this episode.