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Corps develops plan to get troops to drink less

Aug. 26, 2012 - 11:55AM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 26, 2012 - 11:55AM  |  
Pfc. Jimmy Cryan, a separations clerk with Headquarters Battalion, Marine Corps Logistics Base, Barstow, Calif., receives safety instructions from Charlie Keegan, a base safety specialist, before maneuvering through the Simulated Impaired Driving Experience on Nov. 12. The simulator is designed to teach Marines about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Pfc. Jimmy Cryan, a separations clerk with Headquarters Battalion, Marine Corps Logistics Base, Barstow, Calif., receives safety instructions from Charlie Keegan, a base safety specialist, before maneuvering through the Simulated Impaired Driving Experience on Nov. 12. The simulator is designed to teach Marines about the dangers of drinking and driving. (Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Marine officials are developing a new alcohol-abuse campaign plan, citing booze's frequent involvement in societal problems plaguing the Marine Corps.

A draft version of the program is due to Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford in September when the Executive Force Preservation Board meets, said Brig. Gen. Robert Hedelund, director of the Marine and Family Programs Division of Manpower and Reserve Affairs. The board is headed by Dunford and focuses on issues that affect Marines' safety, welfare and readiness. It includes about 20 other generals, a handful of senior Navy officers and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett.

Hedelund said the Corps must decide whether it's serious about changing its culture involving alcohol. "We're not convinced that [promoting] responsible drinking is working," he said.

Instead, the Corps is developing plans that will focus on teaching Marines about the risks associated with drinking — everything from the obvious dangers of drinking and driving to impaired decision-making and alcohol-related health problems. Officials want alcohol awareness briefs to begin for poolees before they report to boot camp, continue during entry-level training and be refreshed at the unit level.

Several months ago, a team of behavioral health professionals, led by Dr. Keita Franklin, conducted four focus groups at bases on the East and West coasts, at Marine Corps headquarters and overseas in Okinawa. Hundreds of Marines participated, representing all ranks.

The team polled these focus groups with questions aimed at understanding why Marines drink, and it sought suggestions for viable alternative activities, Franklin told Marine Corps Times in April. Junior Marines were the most forthcoming, she said, recalling straightforward discussions about drinking as a means to socialize and, for young men, a means to meet young women.

From these sessions, a few ideas emerged for off-duty diversions that wouldn't necessarily involve alcohol. One Marine suggested midnight paintball, Franklin said. Another proposed creation of a dating website exclusive to the Corps. Officials also gleaned valuable anecdotal data, she said.

"We asked Marines in the focus groups, ‘What's responsible drinking?'" Franklin said. "And the first Marine that answered the question, in the first focus group at Camp Lejeune, was like ‘18 or so beers?' Another one stood up and was like ‘No, not 18. More like 15.'

"One of our fixes is to stop talking about responsible drinking," she said, "because no one knows what it means, and it's different for everyone. Now we're trying to … map it onto Marine language [centered] around operational risk. So even if you have one [drink], you could be at risk.

Of note, Franklin said, was the resistance she and her team encountered from several officers and senior enlisted Marines, whom she described as reluctant to "own the problem."

"What's interesting about this campaign is it is such a huge cultural shift for the Corps that it's not been well received so far," she said. "… It's getting at the heart of people's drinking habits. It's such a personal issue for them. … While we were out there, one Marine said, ‘You know, binge drinking is a station in the Corps.' He was telling me, ‘You're not going to fix this problem. It's what we do. It's just getting caught that's the problem.'"

Indeed, finding consensus has proven challenging. The Executive Force Preservation Board's meeting in September will mark the second time officials from Manpower have presented their plan there. Marine officials initially wanted to put the program in place by the beginning of summer but delayed when Dunford and other senior leaders said the information available had to be summarized better for rank-and-file Marines.

Franklin said of that first pitch: "It didn't sell well, [the notion of] one beer makes you at risk. They started asking us, ‘at risk for what?' "

Booze leads to trouble

The Corps' behavioral health team characterizes the campaign plan as a serious effort to improve operational readiness in the Corps and the health and well-being of Marines. Alcohol abuse is involved in about half of the Corps' sexual assaults and a third of its spousal abuse incidents, Marine officials said.

The new plan is in development as the Corps faces an embarrassing sexual assault problem that Commandant Gen. Jim Amos has called a "black mark" on the service's reputation. There were 333 reported sexual assaults in the service in 2011, according to a service report released in July. It's widely held that such crimes are grossly underreported, however.

The Corps also is grappling with suicide numbers that are on the rise after a couple of years in decline. Through the first six months of 2012, the Corps had 24 reported suicides and 100 suicide attempts. It recorded highs of 52 suicides in 2009 and 172 suicide attempts in 2010. In 2011, there were 32 reported suicides and 163 attempts, Marine officials said.

Barrett, the commandant's senior enlisted adviser, has been involved with — and exceptionally vocal about — the effort to "eviscerate" alcohol abuse and other societal ills from within the ranks. Earlier this year, during a conference in Washington focused on warrior resilience, he delivered a rapid-fire laundry list of problems that are becoming more prevalent not only in the Marine Corps, but across the military.

"Drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, criminal mischief, sexual misconduct, hazing, operational stress, force preservation deficiencies, suicide," he boomed. "… Collectively, across the services, those nine things are absolutely killing us. Those are the insurgents inside our wire. … And you need to attack those damn things the same way you would attack it if it was happening to your own children."

Just last month, during a tour of Afghanistan with Amos, Barrett grabbed the microphone at Combat Outpost Shir Ghazi in Musa Qala district, from which members of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, were operating. He delivered a stern warning about staying safe when they return to the United States this fall, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"You're not going to overindulge and then jump on a crotch rocket and slam into a stinkin' telephone pole," Barrett told them. "You go outside the wire every single day, and you go hunt down the bad man, you fix him in place and you kill him! That's your job. You've already proven yourself. You've got nothing else to prove. Go home, be aggressive … but be aggressive without being reckless. Live your life right and to its fullest."

Franklin's take is that alcohol is ground zero. In fact, an information paper she provided to Marine Corps Times in the spring includes a graphic — titled "Alcohol ‘Hub of the Wheel'" — that links drinking to all the things Barrett complained about during the conference in Washington.

"If we reduced our alcohol numbers, would we reduce our domestic violence and child abuse numbers, our sexual assault numbers, our DUIs?" Franklin asked. "Would we alleviate people taking prescription drugs because they're struggling with post-traumatic stress and they're masking it with alcohol? … If we could just get these [alcohol numbers] down a little, it would have spillover effects for the other areas."

Hedelund said part of the challenge is changing the culture in the Corps surrounding alcohol. Junior Marines are entrusted with life-or-death decisions, he said, but also must be prepared to face consequences if they engage in destructive behavior while drinking.

Marines can't snicker about drinking anymore, the general said.

"I've said this before: An organization that was born at the bar has to come to grips with, ‘Are we really serious about changing Marine Corps culture about alcohol.' And if we are, we've got to do certain things to do that," Hedelund said. "… I think we're getting there with senior leadership, and we're certainly getting there with commanders who understand that drinking responsibly doesn't mean the same thing to an O-6 as it does to a 21-year-old."

Staff writer pkime@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from MarineCorpsTimes.com reader">Patricia Kime contributed to this report.

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