Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hands out diplomas at the United States Military Academy at West Point during the 215 commencement ceremony May 25, 2013 in West Point, New York. Most USMA graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants in the US Army. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)
WEST POINT, N.Y. (USA Today) -- Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told the 215th graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy that they are taking on a new responsibility to uphold the military values of accountability and leadership - and warned them of the need to stop the "scourge" of sexual assault in the military.
"You made a courageous decision to offer yourself for a very purposeful life," Hagel said, as a steady rain fell over a sea of cadets in gray uniforms.
Hagel used his brief remarks to pointedly condemn the widespread sexual misconduct that has plagued the military and West Point in recent months, a day after President Barack Obama delivered a similar edict to U.S. Naval Academy graduates.
"Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal -- a profound betrayal -- of sacred oaths and sacred trust," Hagel said. "This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable in ensuring this happens."
"You must be the generation of leaders that stop it," he added.
The message comes amid a new report showing that as many as 26,000 military service members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs. The estimate was based largely on anonymous surveys.
The challenge is particularly poignant for the West Point crowd, because earlier in the week an Army sergeant was charged with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the academy, including in a bathroom.
Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon is facing charges of dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women's bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos of at least a dozen women who were naked or in various states of undress.
Hagel, who gave his first commencement address as secretary of defense, said the graduates join the armed forces at a time of "historic transformation" for the military and for the world.
"The Army you enter today is emerging ... and in many ways it's recovering from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan."
"A new Army is being shaped and ... you will have the responsibility of helping shape it," he said.
The graduating class of 2013 will enter an armed forces constrained by budget cuts and fewer soldiers, and in an environment plagued by alcohol and drug abuse and suicide in addition to sexual misconduct.
An Army veteran who served in Vietnam and a former senator from Nebraska, Hagel also reflected on lessons he learned during his time in the military.
Tactics, techniques and training have changed in the decades since he served the Army, but the basic principles of character and courage remain the same, he said.
The wet weather and the solemn tone of the commencement address didn't lessen the sense of joy for the cadets' families, who cheered as their sons and daughters received diplomas in Michie Stadium.
Vincent Franchino, 21, of Stony Point, N.Y., was quickly surrounded by a dozen relatives - including his 87-year-old grandmother -- after the traditional hat toss marked the ceremony's end.
"It's a roller-coaster ride of emotions," he said, reflecting on his four years at West Point.
Fatigue, anxiety and pride commingled on this cold and rainy day of celebration, Franchino said. But most of all, he felt excited to embark on his next steps: Traveling the world and then heading to Fort Rucker, Ala., where he will take up a post at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
He acknowledged the cloud that the video tape scandal cast over an otherwise cheerful day.
"Personally, it sucks that we have to go through this and that this is in our ranks," he said.
Yet "it makes me more aware of what I have to do" as a second lieutenant in the Army, he said.
"I always knew that I wanted to return something to the nation from what I've been given. I've always wanted to give back, and this is the best way I think I can give back."
Contributing: The Associated Press