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Panetta tells troops misconduct hurts morale, mission

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:29 PM EDT, Fri May 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Defense secretary speaks to deploying soldiers
  • He tells them misconduct threatens Afghan mission
  • Past incidents include photos of troops posing with or urinating on corpses

(CNN) -- The enemy may be losing on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but he is trying to win the public relations war with the help of misconduct among a few U.S. military personnel, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told soldiers Friday.

Panetta, speaking at Fort Benning, Georgia, acknowledged the first anniversary of the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the accomplishments of troops serving across Afghanistan.

But he told members of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division preparing for deployment that they must live up to high standards of personal conduct and integrity -- and avoid mistakes and scandal.

"I know that you are proud to wear the uniform of your country and that you strive to live up to the highest standards that we expect of you," Panetta said. "But the reality is we are fighting a different kind of war and living in a different kind of world than when I was a lieutenant here at Fort Benning. "

"These days, it takes only seconds -- seconds -- for a picture, a photo to suddenly become an international headline. And those headlines can impact the mission that we are engaged in," Panetta said. "It can put your fellow service members at risk. It can hurt morale. It can damage our standing in the world and they can cost lives."

A report issued this week by the Pentagon noted several "significant shocks" in Afghanistan from October to March, including the release of a video of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses, the inadvertent burning of religious materials by U.S. personnel and the alleged killing of 17 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai last month condemned photos of U.S. soldiers posing with bodies of suspected insurgents.

Karzai, who described the images as "inhumane and provocative," said "the only way to put an end to such painful experiences" was to end the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Panetta has condemned the photos, reportedly taken in 2010 and published by the Los Angeles Times, saying they depict behavior that "absolutely violates" U.S. regulations and values.

"I know that none of you deliberately acts to hurt your mission or to put your fellow soldiers at risk," Panetta told GIs on Friday. "You are the best, and that's why I am here today to tell you that ... I need your leadership, I need your courage, I need your strength to make sure that we always abide by the highest standards."

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