Marines and sailors ‘blow’ away their futures

by Mike Heral

Earlier this month, U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus unveiled two individual alcohol abuse monitoring programs designed to “deter and educate” Marines and sailors. It’s a laudable goal, resulting from a September 2012 Institute of Medicine report documenting a rise in binge drinking service-wide. According to the report, binge drinking increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 45 percent in 2008. However, Mabus’ initiative is the wrong approach. It will not “deter and educate” Marines and sailors. It doesn’t get to the root cause of binge drinking. Mabus stressed this program will not result in disciplinary action, but it will.

Marines and sailors are experts at beating the system. Mabus’ program is ripe for exploitation because it administers a Breathalyzer test to Marines and sailors only when they report to work. Here’s an example of how easily the program can be beat:

The military is justifiably concerned about domestic violence. According to the American Forces Press Service, military-family advocacy programs supported more than 14,000 people in fiscal year 2011. Let’s suppose I’m at home and drink six shots in an hour. I’m swayed into acting against my better judgment, hitting my son when he acts out during this most inopportune time. The police are called. I’m arrested.

But, let’s say the police don’t get called. Instead, I go to bed after hitting my son, wake up and report to work. I blow into the Breathalyzer and it registers zeros. I behaved, at least according to Mabus’ ridiculous alcohol abuse deterrence policy.

How did I beat Mabus? It’s a simple matter of mathematics. The U.S. National Library of Medicine estimates the average drinker eliminates alcohol at the rate of 15 milligrams per 100 milliliters per hour. Therefore, I’m below the threshold level as long as I stop drinking at the right time. Math will not eliminate the abuse I caused while drinking. Sadly, all I’ve learned to do is to mask my binge drinking.

A real alcohol abuse deterrence policy must address the root cause for abuse. Never before in the military’s history have servicemen and women faced so much. The U.S. is engaged in a decade-long war against terrorism, one seemingly without end as former Vice President Dick Cheney speculated. Making matters worse, this war is the only one fought without troop buildup, the proper funding or a reduction in operational tempo. The Navy usually sends sailors individually to support the war. They are pulled from their regular commands. When they return, they’re only partially exempted from their command’s mission. They must execute all deployments occurring outside of the time exemption.

But there is more plaguing the minds of our troops. Looking again at just the Navy, our enlisted sailors are now subject to three career review boards. Essentially, sailors are threatened annually because of budget cuts. I’m not sure about you, dear reader, but never-ending separation from my family coupled with career instability is more than enough to make me empty the contents of a whiskey bottle.

To me, the biggest absurdity is Mabus’ insistence that a Marine or sailor testing at or above the threshold will not receive punitive action. He said it results only in counseling referral and not permanent service record action. Theory never holds up to reality. The Navy’s performance evaluation system divides promotion recommendations into five categories. Quotas are assigned to the top two categories, meaning only a set number of sailors can be ranked accordingly. I served on numerous evaluation ranking boards during my career. Competition for the top category is fierce, and I can assure you each board used all punitive, non-service record information available. Little concern was given to placing sailors in the second promotion category until the Navy ramped up its force-shaping efforts. Until then, it was merely assumed lower-ranked sailors would rise to the top once others transferred. We were wrong.

Sailors lost their careers trusting that a lower-performance category wasn’t disadvantageous. Quotas to remain on active duty remain slim. Can anyone seriously suggest a violation of Mabus’ policy won’t be used against a sailor at the next ranking board?

There’s a better way to curb alcohol abuse in the military. It’s not by arming a posse with portable Breathalyzers. It begins with an understanding of how deployments affect human behavior. It ends with policies safeguarding the life and liberties of each military member. The secretary’s policy needs to be scuttled.