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New plan aims to help crush excessive drinking

Dec. 10, 2012 - 08:09AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 10, 2012 - 08:09AM  |  
Beginning in January, all Marines will be subject to random alcohol breath tests twice a year, Marine officials say. The move is consistent with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus' push to clamp down on excessive drinking and the behavioral problems that can stem from it.
Beginning in January, all Marines will be subject to random alcohol breath tests twice a year, Marine officials say. The move is consistent with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus' push to clamp down on excessive drinking and the behavioral problems that can stem from it. (MARINE CORPS)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Marines will be subject to random breathalyzer tests twice a year as the Corps expands its fight in the coming year against alcohol abuse and underage drinking.

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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — Marines will be subject to random breathalyzer tests twice a year as the Corps expands its fight in the coming year against alcohol abuse and underage drinking.

The Alcohol Screening Program will begin in January and include tests administered on duty to officers and enlisted personnel, mostly in the morning when Marines report to work, said Col. Timothy Foster, chief of staff here of the Marine and Family Programs Division of Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Unit commanders will determine when the tests are given.

These screenings will make it difficult for Marines to drink heavily late at night during the workweek. A blood alcohol content level of 0.01 — eight times less than the legal driving limit in most states — will trigger a positive test. Marines who test positive could be referred for further testing or alcohol abuse counseling. In severe cases, they also could face discipline from their commanders, although that's not the stated purpose of the program.

"Its primary purpose is not punitive," Foster told Marine Corps Times on Dec. 5. "The purpose is really to deter underage drinking and also reporting for work under the influence of alcohol. On a much broader scale, this is just one tool for commanders to use as we get after the negative effects of alcohol abuse and misuse in our Corps."

The program is driven by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, whose 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative also includes measures to curb sexual assault and motorcycle accidents and improve physical fitness. Alcohol abuse jeopardizes personal and unit readiness, and contributes to suicide, domestic violence and other behavioral issues with which the military is wrestling, Mabus said upon announcing the program in March.

Results of the breathalyzer tests, Mabus said, would not be used to punish Marines and sailors unless they were over the local legal limit — commonly 0.08 for adults, and 0.02 for drivers under 21.

"We're not telling you not to drink, if you're old enough," Mabus said earlier this year. "We are telling you that it's important to keep legal, responsible use of alcohol from turning into a problem … Sailors who drink excessively or too late the night before and report to duty can place themselves, their shipmates and equipment at risk."

‘21st century' crackdown

The Navy and Marine Corps launched breathalyzer pilot programs earlier this year. The Corps' ran from April 1 to Oct. 31, with the following units identified for testing:

• Marine Corps Security Forces at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga.

• Marine Corps Security Forces at Naval Base Kitsap, Bangor Trident Base, Wash.

• Marine Security Company, Naval Support Facility Thurmont, Camp David, Md.

• Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 at Quantico.

Of the 797 Marines screened during the pilot program, four tested positive for having alcohol in their systems at work, Foster said. The Corps needed to do those tests to understand how collection would work, he said, and to streamline the process before anything else was rolled out across the service.

A forthcoming Marine administrative message will formally announce the program's launch, with specifics of its implementation released separately to commands. Some details are still under discussion, including how strongly commanders should respond when different thresholds are reached with a Marine's BAC, Foster said.

"It's not to try to find ways to hurt one's career," he said. "We're trying to have a tool to get after a Marine who may have some potential alcohol misuse or abuse tendencies, and get the treatment and education they need before it manifests in an alcohol incident, whether that be a DUI … or some sort of more serious consequence."

The policy goes into effect Jan. 1, but some Marines may not see testing for months. The Corps will field breathalyzer kits across the service as they become available, and each command will designate an Alcohol Screening Program coordinator to lead testing.

More changes coming

The screening program is one piece of the Corps' new alcohol-abuse campaign plan, which was presented to the Executive Force Preservation Board headed by Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford in September. The board includes about 20 other generals, a handful of senior Navy officers and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett.

Marine officials said the plan 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. They want alcohol awareness briefings to begin with poolees before they report to boot camp, continue during entry-level training and be refreshed at the unit level.

Additional programs will be rolled out as part of the plan, Foster said, but he declined to describe them.

Marine officials continue to look for ways to curb excessive drinking, as they've acknowledged the issue is deep-seated. Early efforts to develop the campaign plan included focus groups with Marines. The teams of behavioral health specialists who conducted these sessions came away from them with some startling observations: Junior Marines tended to have little concept of "responsible drinking," while several officers and senior enlisted Marines expressed strong reluctance to change.

For an institution as old as the Corps — which, famously, was founded at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia — the cultural implications are significant. Privately, some Marine officers have expressed skepticism over certain aspects of Mabus' initiative, namely the breathalyzer tests, but said they will carry out his orders.

At the same time, senior Marine leaders realize the consequences of doing nothing. Alcohol abuse is involved in about half of the Corps' sexual assaults and a third of its spousal abuse incidents, Marine officials have said.

In August, Brig. Gen. Robert Hedelund, the director of the Marine and Family Programs Division, told Marine Corps Times that an organization "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."

Foster reinforced that notion.

"This is a tough subject," he said. "We are trying to get after it, and trying to reduce and eliminate alcohol abuse and misuse in our ranks."

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