SAN DIEGO -- The laughter and chatter ceased when the two naval chiefs appeared on the rooftop deck of the barracks, where four sailors -- three men and a woman -- were having drinks in a hot tub with a view of San Diego Bay.
In a don't-try-to-fool-me tone, Chief Petty Officer John Tate asked a 23-year-old whether his Gatorade bottle was spiked. Then Tate turned to the female: "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 new initiatives the armed forces are implementing to try to stop sexual assaults by changing the military's work-hard, play-hard culture. The effort follows a Pentagon report in May that estimates up to 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. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said it threatens to undermine troops' effectiveness in carrying out missions.
But military leaders have rejected 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 with a zero-tolerance message and a crackdown on alcohol, said to be a major contributor to the problem.
Hagel ordered all commanders to inspect work spaces by July 1 to ensure they were free of degrading material, and he gave military leaders until Nov. 1 to recommend ways to hold officers accountable for their commands' environments.
In June, thousands of military men and women attended interactive, in-your-face training programs as part of a Pentagon-ordered stand-down from regular duties to specifically address sexual assault.
They role-played uncomfortable scenarios, watched explicit videos that included rape scenes and were grilled over the meaning of "consent" in boot camp-style lectures.
During one course at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, S.C., 1st Sgt. Rena Bruno paced in front of screens filled with statistics as she schooled 200 recruits, in their 10th day of basic training, on the definitions of sexual assault and harassment.
"We're tired of hearing about it in every military branch!" Bruno bellowed. "It brings dishonor to the Marine Corps! You got that?"
"Yes, ma'am!" the young men yelled back.