MANAMA, Bahrain — Sailors in a packed gym on Naval Support Activity Bahrain gently laughed as the vice chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Mark Ferguson, offered a special coin to the first sailor brave enough to ask him a question.

“Ask first, you get the vice chief coin. These are very rare — we’re not buying them anymore,” he remarked.

For the chuckling sailors the comment was subtly representative of tough financial times for the Navy as it copes with the effects of sequestration.

“It’s a topic we stress about every day,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Denise Hargis, who was one of about 800 sailors to attend the “all-hands” meeting Tuesday with the Navy’s second in charge.

Ferguson was direct with the sailors — telling them that the reality is that sequestration is affecting readiness. But he also assured sailors in Bahrain — a forward operating area — that they are getting the best of what the Navy can offer and support.

“The entire Navy is focused on supporting our forward presence, often to the detriment of the non-deployed forces back home,” explained Ferguson.

The admiral was also upfront with sailors about his concerns for next fiscal year’s spending plan if sequestration continues. The Navy faces $14 billion in sequestration cuts — about the size of its entire annual shipbuilding budget, according to Ferguson. Sustaining the forward presence, ensuring sailors have the tools to do the job, and supporting sailors would be the priorities, he said.

“It was good information ... at least we have an idea of what’s going on,” Hargis said.

While all the questions from sailors revolved around sequestration, it wasn’t the only thing on the admiral’s mind during the visit. He pointedly addressed sexual assault and suicides in the Navy.

“Sexual assault ruins lives, ruins trust, degrades readiness and doesn’t have a place in this institution,” he said.

He told sailors it boils down to leadership.

“All of us in this room are leaders. And we can no longer be bystanders to allow that to happen.”

The admiral went on to discuss suicides — a concern for the VCNO, even though suicides among sailors are below the national average.

“I would ask you to be attentive to your shipmates, and be in tune,” he said.

While in Bahrain, Ferguson met with Bahrain’s crown prince, and conveyed to sailors the crown prince’s thanks for their service.

Ferguson spent three days in the region, also visiting sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the destroyer USS Higgins.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.comTwitter: @hendricksimoes

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