NORFOLK, Va. — Petty Officer 1st Class Karen Thompson walks up to a young Marine standing in the smoking pit outside the barracks and gets right to the point: "Not too much drinking tonight?" she asks.
The Marine shakes his head - he has to work the following day. As they chat, Thompson gets his name, where he's from and his career trajectory. She draws in the other young men puffing on cigarettes in the cold.
Thompson's half their size, but the petty officer commands respect - her authoritative manner and the red "Roving Patrol" badge she wears compel conversation on a recent weekend night. She talks with them a while longer, then wraps it up.
"Have a good evening, gentlemen," she says. "You all stay out of trouble."
On this Friday night, two weeks before Christmas, the base is quieter than Thompson and patrol leader Senior Chief Petty Officer Marino Terrell have ever seen it. But three months into the roving patrols at Norfolk Naval Station and the region's other bases, neither she nor Terrell need to explain what they're doing - or why.
The patrols, conducted each night by two-person teams, are one of numerous initiatives launched last year by the Navy to crack down on military sexual assault, following a Pentagon report last spring that estimated as many as 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact took place over the prior 12 months. The report, and a number of high-profile scandals, brought the issue to the fore and highlighted a culture throughout the branches that tolerated sexual assault and retaliation against service members who reported assaults.
The Pentagon responded by instructing all the services to take actions to prevent assaults, hold commanders accountable, beef up investigations and prosecutions and ensure support and protection for victims who come forward.
The Navy developed training for all personnel, increased the number of criminal investigators handling sexual assault cases, added a victim's advocate to every command and trained response coordinators at every installation.
It also instituted the roving patrols, started peer support groups and will soon deploy licensed mental health counselors aboard ships.
"There's so much time and commitment to this issue that the amount of awareness in the Navy is exponential," said Shannon Davis, a licensed social worker and deputy director for the Navy's mid-Atlantic region's Fleet and Family Support program.
In early November, the Pentagon announced a 46 percent jump in the number of victims reporting sexual assault between October 2012 and June 2013 compared to a year earlier, a figure it said was a direct result of these new efforts.
"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of millions of military men and women, a threat to the discipline and cohesion of our force, and we will not allow this to stand," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said last month after a number of military legal reforms against sexual assault were incorporated into the 2014 defense budget.
In Hampton Roads, the message is being drummed into sailors, who not only sit through classroom-style training but also watch skits depicting scenarios in which assault often occurs.
Davis describes one such skit, in which an officer touches a young female sailor inappropriately while her colleagues sit uncomfortably in silence. Another skit demonstrates the difference when someone intervenes to stop abusive behavior or prevent a drunken sailor from going home with an unscrupulous superior.
Navy officials say it is too soon to track statistical changes on the local level since the initiatives were implemented. But anecdotally, those involved say the sheer amount of attention to the issue has increased awareness and they are seeing a rise in reporting - even by victims who remained silent for years and are now coming forward.
"Bringing this type of awareness engages (people) and makes them want to come forward and say 'Hey, this happened to me,' " said Andrew Thompson, the command master chief for the mid-Atlantic region, which oversees the sexual assault prevention and response programs. "I think they understand that people are listening."
Members of the roving patrols say they've also seen changes. "Being out every day, providing awareness, a lot of incidents really went down," said Terrell, the senior chief petty officer leading the recent patrol.
"When I first got here in January, it was kind of like a madhouse.... We had a lot of incidents, drunken parties," he said. "They are not so keen to throw a party now, not so keen to have underage drinking."
At more than 6 feet tall, Terrell is a commanding presence as he moves from building to building at Norfolk Naval Station, talking with some of the thousands who live on the base at any given time. The culinary specialist, who is in charge of enlisted single sailor housing on the base, volunteers for the duty - as do his fellow patrollers.
"Everybody who does this is just caring about sailors," he says.
A few months back, Thompson and Terrell had to call security on two sailors "going at it" in a car parked on the base after the man and woman failed to heed a warning to halt the sexual encounter. Usually, though, the patrollers say they handle things themselves - imposing discipline with a mix of authority and banter and using the time away from their base jobs to get to know the sailors posted here.
Thompson eyes two girls wearing dresses and high heels as they exit the barracks for their Friday night out - "just making sure they aren't too short," she says.
She calls out to a sailor in a knit Washington Redskins cap walking swiftly past the patrol. The sailor turns and Thompson moves closer to address him face to face. He listens, then reaches up to his left ear and removes his diamond studs, forbidden by Navy uniform regulations.
Then she runs into a sailor she knows.
"You are one of my trouble guys," she says, smiling. The sailor smiles back. A few months earlier, he'd mouthed off to one of Thompson's rovers and she called his command.
He tells her he just got his wings - signifying he earned his qualifications in aviation warfare.
Thompson high-fives him. "I'm really proud of you," she says.