Recent reports reveal that the Army is concerned about rising rates of alcohol abuse, said to have nearly doubled in the past few years. In a June story in USA Today, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, was quoted bluntly telling senior officers, "We're seeing a lot of alcohol consumption."
These reports were generated by Army substance-abuse counselors, who have firsthand knowledge of alcohol and drug abuse. The article included a statement from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who said: "I'm sure there are many factors for the rising numbers ... but I can't believe the stress our people are under after eight years of combat isn't taking a toll." Chiarelli sees a connection between alcohol abuse and a rising suicide rate, and he said that a reluctance to confront the alcohol problem could be related to commanders' need to "keep their numbers up" for combat deployments.
It's natural for citizens and soldiers to share these concerns. The men and women serving our nation through multiple overseas tours experience stresses of combat and family separation that those of us at home can only imagine. But overlooked, perhaps, are the implications of keeping alcohol from those soldiers as they risk their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The armed forces has codified its alcohol proscription. For example, General Order No. 1B from Headquarters, United States Central Combined Air Forces, June 1, 2007, states: "The prohibition against possession, use, and consumption of alcoholic beverages is waived for all areas ... except Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq."
Boy, does that bring back memories of Vietnam, where I served during the 1968 Tet Offensive, some of the heaviest fighting of the war. What I remember, clearly and fondly, is that every day the Army delivered two cans of beer to every soldier in my battalion. Sometimes the beer was warm, sometimes chilled, but we counted on that last afternoon chopper to deliver the goods.
We each had our favorites. Least popular were the brands with rusting steel tops, but we didn't complain.
With attack a constant possibility, I cannot recall a single case of drunkenness. Of course, it was different in the base camps, where small bars sprang up, serving anything soldiers could get their hands on. At the larger bases, the PX could sell real liquor to officers. Sometimes enterprising merchants would catch up with us on combat operations, offering refreshment for a price. If they were willing to accept military scrip in lieu of Vietnamese money, they did all right.
I'm an old "juicer" - that's what we called drinkers in Vietnam, in contrast with the "heads," who smoked pot. I know of several instances where outposts were overrun and the defenders were too high on drugs to fight back. But I cannot recall a single instance in which combat operations were harmed in the slightest by soldiers being given two cans of beer a day.
After the war, I asked a Marine who had been surrounded during the 1968 Battle of Hue what it was like to spend so many days during Tet trying to survive without food or booze.
"I don't know what you mean," he replied, "We didn't have much to eat, but there was plenty to drink. Sure, we didn't have any ice, but we got over it."
The Army today is worried about binge-drinking. If drinking is illegal, why not go the whole nine yards? Is it possible that soldiers who go dry for a year or more overdo it with the bottle or can when they get home? There were problems with binge drinking, too, during Prohibition.
I realize that service in Islamic countries complicates the question, but aren't our troops sacrificing enough? If combat beer rations were resumed in Afghanistan and Iraq, I can't promise that suicide rates would fall dramatically. But I'll bet a case of Budweiser with any man standing that morale would go up.
Charles Krohn is a retired Army lieutenant colonel in Burke, Va.
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