By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged a group of Afghanistan-bound soldiers on Friday to behave with integrity in the war zone, saying thoughtless photos and actions could provoke violence that would endanger their lives and their mission.
"These days it takes only seconds, seconds, for a picture, a photo, to suddenly become an international headline," Panetta told members of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"Those headlines can impact the mission that we're engaged in. They can put your fellow service members at risk, they can hurt morale, they can damage our standing in the world and they can cost lives," a somber Panetta told troopers at the base where he served in 1964 as a young lieutenant.
Panetta's remarks came as the United States struggles to contain the damage from a series of incidents provoked by U.S. troops this year who burned Korans and other religious material, took videos of each other urinating on what appeared to be corpses of insurgents and posed with Afghan body parts.
A U.S. soldier also went on a shooting rampage in Afghanistan, killing 17 civilians, nine of them children.
The incidents provoked outrage and violence among Afghans and heightened tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They also prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to issue an apology over the Koran burning and to call Karzai to express remorse over the civilian deaths.
"These incidents concern me and they have to concern you," Panetta said. "A few who lack judgment, lack professionalism, lack leadership can hurt all of us and can hurt all of those men and women who serve this country with distinction."
Panetta said the international mission in Afghanistan was succeeding. He said Afghan troops would accept security responsibility for more provinces this month and by the end of the summer would be providing security for 80 percent of the population.
But Taliban insurgents will use "any opportunity to damage us," Panetta said, including careless actions by U.S. troops.
"Our enemies will seek to turn them, these incidents, in their favor at the very moment that they are losing the war," he said. "So I want all of you to always remember, always remember who you are and the great country that you serve."
The military's image was tarnished by another recent incident abroad that is still under investigation.
A dozen service members were caught up in a prostitution scandal in Colombia last month while serving on a Secret Service task force working on advance security arrangements for an Obama visit to Colombia.
Panetta urged the troopers to be on their best behavior while serving abroad.
"I need every one of you, every one of you, and all of your fellow service members to always display the strongest character, the greatest discipline and the utmost integrity in everything you do," he said.
"We've got great aircraft, we've got great tanks, we've got great technology, but let me tell you something, it is the character and the standards that each of you bring to the battle that makes us strong," Panetta added.
(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Osterman)