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.
"We need cultural change, where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims' privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene, and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice," Hagel said after the report was released.
Hagel ordered all commanders to inspect workspaces 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. The service members role-played uncomfortable scenarios, watched explicit videos that included rape scenes and were grilled over the meaning of "consent" in boot camp-style lectures. Some branches allowed media to attend the sessions.
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.
At another class at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, about 200 airmen, mostly in their 20s, watched videos that showed an old World War II bomber plane decorated with a painting of a pinup girl and a sexually suggestive squadron patch.
Saying the culture has to change, Lt. Col. Rick Hughes told the group: "America's view is that the military condones sexual assault."
Each branch of the military is imposing new rules, mostly aimed at service members in their 20s, who the Pentagon says are most vulnerable to an attack.
The Army implemented a 9 p.m. curfew and banned alcohol for young soldiers at 22 of its basic training facilities. The Marine Corps' top leader ordered "climate surveys" for all new commanders to check for harassment, hazing and alcohol problems among their subordinates. The Air Force put a female two-star general in charge of a beefed-up office responsible for sexual assault prevention and response. The Navy plans to replicate the nightly patrols roaming San Diego's bases at some 70 installations worldwide, including in Pensacola; Naples, Italy; and Yokosuka, Japan.