SAN DIEGO — The laughter and chatter ceased as soon as the two naval chiefs appeared on the rooftop deck of the barracks, where four sailors — three men and one woman — were having drinks in a hot tub with a sweeping view of San Diego Bay.
Chief Petty Officer John Tate approached the group and asked a 23-year-old in a don't-try-to-fool-me tone whether his Gatorade bottle was spiked. Then Tate turned to the only female in the hot tub: "You on the same ship? You drinking a little bit, too?"
"I'm just sipping on it," she said.
There was no mention of the military's push to prevent sexual assaults in its ranks, but those in the hot tub at Naval Base San Diego said they knew that's why Tate was there. Tate serves on one of the Navy's new nightly patrol units charged with policing bases to control heavy drinking and reckless behavior.
The patrols are among a number of new initiatives the armed forces is implementing to try to stop sexual assaults by changing the military's work-hard, play-hard culture. The effort follows a Pentagon report, released in May, that estimates as many as 26,000 service members may have been sexually assaulted last year.
The head of the Army has called sexual assault "a cancer" that could destroy the force, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the problem threatens to undermine troops' effectiveness in carrying out missions. But military leaders have rejected far-reaching congressional efforts to strip commanders of some authority in meting out justice, saying that would undercut the ability of commanders to discipline their troops.
Now every branch is scrambling to demonstrate it can get the situation under control by instituting new measures that emphasize a zero-tolerance message and crack down on alcohol, which is said to be a major contributor to the problem.