Alcohol In The Ranks

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Navy photo by MSC 3rd Class Betsy Knapper

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announces his Breathalyzer policy aboard the USS Bataan March 5

There are reports that alcohol illicitly consumed by Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan a week ago may have been the final link in a chain of stressors that caused him to “snap” and slaughter 16 civilians.

Alcohol has always served for some as a salve for the mental, and sometimes physical, wounds of war. The Afghan massacre is going to highlight the subject, and raise anew questions that any parent with teen-agers has grappled with: is it best to ban demon rum completely as the U.S. military now does in war zones – something that can trigger binge drinking – or simply restrict it, as some U.S. allies do?

(PHOTOS: The Afghan Massacre)

In fact, both the Army (in a small way) and Navy (in a big way) have rolled out new policies trying to tamp down alcohol’s deleterious influence in the ranks in the past two weeks:

— The Army recently banned the sale of alcohol after 9 p.m. in its South Korean-based stores in the Seoul area. “Stopping the sale of alcohol after 9 p.m. helps implement an alcohol risk reduction and prevention strategy that responds to potential problems before they jeopardize readiness, productivity, and careers,” Army Colonel William Huber, a local commander, said. The clampdown comes after drinking-related incidents among U.S. troops in South Korea jumped more than 50%, to 127 cases, between the third and fourth quarters of 2011 (an Army spokesman told the Stars and Stripes newspaper the two were not connected).

— Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recently announced that sailors showing up for guard duty aboard Navy vessels in port will undergo Breathalyzer tests starting this year as part of his 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative to keep both sailors and Marines in optimum fighting trim.

“This is a deterrence tool used to identify and direct appropriate counseling or treatment before any of those career or life-altering incidents happen,” Mabus told 700 sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious ship USS Bataan, which had just returned to Norfolk after a nearly 11-month deployment. “Pilot programs using these tests have shown a marked reduction in alcohol related incidents.”

Mabus said recent history played a role in his decision: alcohol played a role in 13 of 20 commanding officers recently relieved of command. “It’s not just young sailors and Marines who are at risk,” he said. “Poor decisions with alcohol have affected our fleet in all the ranks.”

(MORE: Is The Army Responsible for the Afghan Massacre?)

After 10 years of war – and more than 10 months at sea – this is not the news sailors wanted to hear. Naval blogs and ship conversations have been full of commentary on the new policy, most of it negative.

“I don’t understand why the Navy’s senior leadership feels the need to insult every Sailor in the Navy, because that is what they have done with this new breathalyzer policy,” one sailor posted on the Navy’s official website. “The message the SECNAV sends is that each Sailor is a drunk who cannot be trusted to get to work in the morning without drinking first.”

Comments on outside websites, including here, here and here, largely echoed that refrain:

Over 400 flag officers between the Marine Corps and the Navy.  Nearly 100 (only 4 political appointees) SES between the CNO’s office and SECNAV. NO ONE had the moral courage to tell the SECNAV that dumping this policy on Sailors and Marines just coming back from deployment was not really a good idea?  OR is it simply that SECNAV spent to much time flying above 15,000 feet without oxygen to even have a clue about what he was doing?


SECNAV, if this is your priority and message to returning Sailors, who have been busting hump on deployment, you can kiss my silly, white/caucasion of European extraction, non-diverse, mustang A$. Clearly the continued signs of a Navy with leadership & shrinkage issues. What’s next, 4X daily personnel inspections to ensure the skivvies are stenciled correctly? Get a life, seriously.

But sailors have ways around these issues, one old salt recalled, recollecting, with apparent foundness, some petty-officer hooch:

One fine upstanding PO2 from Tennessee using corn and yeast from the mess decks….along with about 100 feet of copper tubing (and other stuff) …. a small tap from the low pressure drains or laundry steam made some of the smoothest moonshine known to man. All nicely placed and lagged so as not to draw attention.  Right there by the Main Feed Pumps and Main Lube Oil Bay. Hidden in plain sight.

MORE: Obama Wrestles with a Withdrawal from Afghanistan