JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Character and commitment will be as important as competency in an age of uncertainty caused by budget crises, the drawdown in Afghanistan and continuing social challenges like sexual assault and suicide, the Army’s top enlisted leader told soldiers in Afghanistan over the weekend.

Too often in the past the Army has emphasized competency over character and commitment, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler told troops during town hall meetings at bases in eastern Afghanistan.

“The most dangerous person in our Army today is someone who is highly competent but has little or no character,” Chandler said. “Too often we tolerate mediocrity.”

That gap has led to troubling trends in sexual assault, suicide and hazing among members of the armed forces, he said. Chandler made similar remarks at several bases to troops with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.

A recent Pentagon survey estimated as many as 26,000 servicemembers faced unwanted sexual contact in fiscal 2012, and the Army, like other service branches, is emphasizing that changing the culture in the military is key to efforts to eliminate sexual assault.

Chandler asked those in the audience to recall times when a fellow soldier stole something from them, then compared the loss of trust and feeling of betrayal to that felt by victims of sexual assault. A soldier may get back the physical item that was stolen, “but you can’t give back somebody’s dignity and respect,” he said.

One female soldier stood to tell Chandler that, from her experience in the Army, many male soldiers are so used to acting in potentially rude or even harassing ways that they are unlikely to change.

She said she believes such behavior is likely to continue as the military tries to integrate women into combat roles that had been open only to men. Military leaders have said they are planning to train women for most combat positions by 2016.

When one male soldier at another meeting said he felt integrating women into combat roles would violate “one of the last boys’ clubs,” Chandler decried the “locker room mentality” that often pervades the military.

“If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your mother there, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” Chandler told the soldier.

The sergeant major also linked suicides and hazing problems to what he sees as a lack of character and commitment to one another among some troops.

Chandler told soldiers that it is within their power to reduce the number of suicides that have been plaguing the military.

“If everyone just looked out for their battle buddy, we could make a difference,” he said. “You have to have the intestinal fortitude to say something.”

He told stories of soldiers who had been bullied to the point of suicide and said hazing is unacceptable. “We can still be tough, disciplined and the best Army in the world, and treat each other with dignity and respect.”

Chandler also addressed the uncertainty of possible further budget cuts or a government shutdown if Congress fails to adopt a budget for the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

“The last thing a soldier putting his life on the line out here needs to be worrying about is money issues and whether he’s going to get paid,” Chandler told Stars and Stripes in a brief interview.

During his meetings with soldiers he sought to assure them that military leaders are fighting for the money soldiers in the field need, but acknowledged that even in best-case scenarios, returning troops will face limited resources for training and other home front benefits they may have been used to.

The combination of less money and the unpredictable nature of the world means that soldiers will need to become more “self-developing,” Chandler said.

smith.josh@stripes.comTwitter: @joshjonsmith

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