NORFOLK, Va. -- The commanding officer of the USS Bataan walked into the wardroom of his amphibious-assault ship where about 200 mostly young sailors were crammed into chairs, along walls and behind the salad bar and wasted no time getting to the point: Sailors don't let other sailors commit sexual assault.
"It's a crime and everyone needs to understand that it's a crime," Capt. Erik Ross said after a third of those in the room raised their hand to say they knew a victim of sexual assault. "You and I need to look ourselves in the mirror. We need to understand that you're on duty 24/7. Even though you're out on the town on liberty ... it's your duty to interfere. It's your duty to intervene. That's it."
Frustrated by a lack of progress in reducing sexual assaults among sailors, the Navy has put unprecedented attention on the issue this year. High-ranking Navy leaders are likening it to their crusade years ago to stop rampant drug abuse and say it is not only dehumanizing to the victims but also threatens their operational readiness.
Regardless of location, most sexual assaults in the Navy occur after a night of drinking and officials say many of them could be prevented if someone had spoken up sooner to stop that chain of events. The focus is nothing short of an attempt at a significant cultural shift in the Navy, where men and women work in close quarters and often go out drinking together in foreign ports after months at sea.
Navy leaders acknowledge sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic for people to talk about, and that's part of the problem they're trying to fix.
"The challenge I believe our fleet leadership is faced with is breaking the many taboos that are often associated with sexual assaults," Adm. John Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command said. "But just as we have taken on other significant problems that impact our readiness such as drunk driving, drug use, dealing properly with PTSD and taking on motorcycle safety, we must also take on sexual assault by pulling back the curtain of secrecy and by facing head on the reality of sexual assault in our Navy."
The reality is that the Navy receives two to three reports of sexual assault a day and has for several years. While the Navy has long taught the importance of preventing sexual assaults, Navy officials say it hasn't worked its way deep enough into the command climate to result in significant changes.
In 2011, there were 610 reports of sexual assault. That's one less than the previous year.
Critics say while it's a good thing the military is focusing on preventing sexual assaults, they say real change won't occur until there are more successful prosecutions. The Defense Department has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, an indication that some are worried about the effect reporting an assault may have on their career as well as their mistrust of the military prosecution system.
"They do say they want to change, but I feel a lot of it is lip service until we see a higher prosecution rate, until we see more rapists sent to prison for rape," said Panayiota Bertzikis, executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. "The bottom line is a felony has been committed and they have to start treating it as a felony."
To that end, the Department of Defense recently announced plans for each service to have "special victim unit" capabilities to ensure that specially trained investigators, prosecutors and victim-witness assistance personnel are available to handle sexual assault cases. That is intended to help with evidence collection, interviewing and court martial proceedings. As part of the initiative, a higher level of command would address the most serious sexual assault offenses. In the Navy, that means someone at the captain level. That change goes into effect Thursday. The idea is for leaders to take over responsibility and be accountable for sexual assault problems.
The fact that Harvey is openly drawing attention to the Navy's problem addressing the issue is a non-too-subtle sign to sailors that Navy leadership won't tolerate it any longer.
It's a problem that has drawn the attention of the Navy's top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.
"I've been at this in earnest for almost three years saying we have got to do something about this. And the numbers aren't changing. We have about 600 of these a year," Greenert told sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in April, according to a Navy transcript. "So today about two sailors are going to sexually assault two other sailors. That's the statistics. I don't know if that bothers you, but it bothers the hell out of me."
The Navy required every sailor to undergo two hours of sexual assault awareness training in April. Although the training could be tailored to each ship or command's unique circumstance, it generally covered what sexual assault is, the options to report it and how to prevent it. Among other things, a video was shown aboard the Bataan of a sailor who chose not to intervene when he saw another man being overly aggressive toward a woman at a bar. After he left, the man struck the woman.
"This is a sensitive subject. A lot of folks don't like to talk about it," said Senior Chief Rhonda Przybylski, the Bataan's sexual assault prevention and response trainer. "It's not usually a general topic of conversation at dinner or the mess decks. It's not like talking about the weather or buying a new car."
During her training session, Przybylski frequently tried to connect sexual assaults on a personal level to those in the room, telling them that enlisted sailors in their early 20s were the most likely to become a victim.
Seaman Samuel Havens, an interior communications fireman aboard the Bataan from Carson City, Nev., said he's been in the Navy for about two years and that the training opened his eyes to what a problem sexual assault is.
"I really didn't realize it happened as much as it does," he said after stopping by a sexual assault awareness table on the ship. "Obviously, it's a big deal. As much as it happens it should be a big deal."
Navy leaders acknowledge that education alone won't eradicate sexual assault, but if they can get sailors like Havens talking about it below deck in the mess halls and in the ranks it could lead to positive peer pressure.
"We can all make a difference. It may not be a huge effect on a huge scale. If you stop one sexual assault, and maybe it's your mother, or your daughter or your best friend or your neighbor, you're making a difference in society. We have to take this out of the context of just being in the military and think about being a good person all around," Przybylski said.
Online: Navy Sexual Assault Prevention http://www.sapr.navy.mil/