By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Army sergeant at the Military Academy has been accused of videotaping female cadets in the showers a West Point, a defense official said on Wednesday, the latest in a series of sex-related incidents that has rocked the armed forces.
Sergeant First Class Michael McClendon was charged last week with four violations of U.S. military law in connection with the incident and has been transferred to a new base pending outcome of an investigation by Army investigators, officials said.
The incident was disclosed on Wednesday hours after Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told a Senate panel they were addressing the service's sexual harassment and sexual assault problem as their top priority.
"I want to assure this committee of the Army's unwavering commitment to eliminating sexual assault and harassment in our ranks," McHugh said. "These crimes violate virtually everything the Army stands for ... and they will not be tolerated."
But lawmakers voiced concern about the military's handling of the issue, with Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, warning that the incidents "have shaken the trust that many have in the ability of our military to deal with this."
In the incident at West Point, McClendon was charged last week with indecent acts, dereliction of duty, cruelty and another count, Army spokesman George Wright said.
Wright said McClendon was being investigated for possession of inappropriate images taken without consent. He did not elaborate. The New York Times, which first reported the case, said the pictures included female cadets in the shower, which a defense official confirmed on condition of anonymity.
"The Army has notified those involved and offered support services at their individual locations," Wright said. "It appears to be at least a dozen or more alleged victims who may have been photographed without their consent."
McClendon had served as a tactical noncommissioned officer at the prestigious academy since 2009, a job that put him in charge of mentoring and training a company of about 121 cadets, focusing on leadership development and other responsibilities.
General John Campbell, the Army's vice chief of staff, said the service moved to address the situation at West Point as soon as the problem was reported, seeking to reassure cadets that such issues would be "handled quickly and decisively."
The report of charges against McClendon follows a spate of sex-related incidents that have embarrassed the U.S. military and prompted members of Congress to introduce legislation designed to toughen up the Pentagon's handling of sex crimes.
A study released by the Defense Department two weeks ago estimated that reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
The report was released just days after Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, who led the Air Force sexual assault prevention effort, was charged with sexual battery involving a civilian woman in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon.
Several days later a U.S. Army sergeant who worked as a sexual assault prevention coordinator at Fort Hood, Texas, was accused of pandering, abusive sexual contact and assault.
McHugh and Odierno said the Army was aggressively moving to retrain and re-evaluate personnel assigned to serve as sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates after some people in those jobs were accused of sexual misconduct.
Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, asked how soldiers where chosen for the positions and whether they were viewed as "throw-away" jobs assigned to whoever was available.
"I hope that's not true," McHugh said. "I've signed a number of directives already to ensure it isn't true."
He and Odierno sent a note to all commanders last week telling them "it is your personal responsibility to ensure these positions are filled by the best qualified individuals," according to a copy of the memo obtained from the Army.
McHugh said he was considering a directive requiring that people who work with sexual assault victims have a more thorough criminal background check, and he said he thought they should probably have behavioral health screening as well.
The Army secretary also advocated additional recognition for people who serve honorably in helping sexual assault victims, such as giving them preference toward promotions later on.
"Without those kinds of incentives, if people don't feel that the jobs are important, they're not likely to bring the kinds of assets and attributes that we wish," McHugh said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bob Burgdorfer)