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USMC unveils dramatic effort to curb drinking

Feb. 20, 2013 - 08:03PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 20, 2013 - 08:03PM  |  
Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., were treated to the play "Rum and Vodka," billed as an interactive approach to addressing alcohol and substance abuse.
Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., were treated to the play "Rum and Vodka," billed as an interactive approach to addressing alcohol and substance abuse. (Getty Images)
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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. More than 200 Marines gathered here in February for an event called "Rum and Vodka," but this was no tasting party and for some, attendance wasn't voluntary.

"Rum and Vodka" is a play that tells the story of a 24-year-old Irishman, married with two toddlers, a mortgage and a job and a serious drinking problem. Written by Conor McPherson, the one-man performance recounts a three-day bender marked by pub-hopping, wasting money and sex with a woman not his wife. Alcohol was the Irishman's chosen relief from the stresses in his life, and its excess nearly ruined his life.

The play was the centerpiece for two 90-minute programs at the base theater here. The program, billed as an interactive approach to addressing alcohol and substance abuse, features a dramatic reading, panel discussion and audience comments.

Bryan Doerries, who founded "Theater of War," brought the program to Camp Pendleton for two shows, the first of 20 to be held at 10 Marine Corps installations this spring. He debuted "Rum and Vodka" for Marines in Quantico, Va., last year.

"The big question is: Is it effective?" Doerries said, adding he hopes that by spurring conversations with the crowd he will connect with Marines accustomed to the Corps' emphasis on values-based training. He wants barriers to strip away so "the lance corporals start talking."

At Camp Pendleton, Marine-turned-actor Adam Driver read excerpts of McPherson's play. A former infantryman, Driver, 29, spent two years at Pendleton with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, but an injury cut short his military career. College and schooling at the famed Juilliard School led to a career in acting, with a regular role on HBO's hit show "Girls" and the role of Samuel H. Beckwith in the movie "Lincoln."

Driver warmed up the crowd with some tart language and a strong Irish brogue. He recounts the story of an Irishman struggling to keep it together as alcohol tears apart his life. A three-day binge, prompted by trouble with his boss, brings out his internal struggles, which he numbs with alcohol. Marriage to a party girl anchors his life, but nights and weekends are spent drinking.

It's not until he cheats on his wife that he realizes he may have hit bottom.

A panel of four Marines a captain, corporal, lance corporal and a retired sergeant major then took the stage and shared their experiences. The captain, a former enlisted Marine now with Combat Logistics Regiment 17, said he's an alcoholic and that "a lot of the words said up here ring true."

Many days, he said, were marked by drinking Jack Daniels. "I would work, and all I would think about was getting off of work and getting another fifth," he said.

But over time, it caught up with him. Twice, he said, he was taken to the emergency room with a 0.45 blood-alcohol content nearly six times the legal limit. For many, "it would be death," he said, adding he's been sober for more than a year.

The audience heard from retired Sgt. Maj. Jerry Cole, a former 1st Marine Logistics Group sergeant major who works as a substance abuse prevention specialist on base. He enlisted at 17 and, like many, drank because it was the normal thing to do, he said. "I was not mature enough to realize this was not normal," Cole said, "because we normalize it … in the Marine Corps."

For the next hour, Marines shared their stories. A 40-year-old gunnery sergeant said his wife drinks heavily and has been to rehab several times, even suffering through days-long benders while their young son was left alone. "It's scary. It takes a toll on you," he said.

A sergeant with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion said Marines in the barracks drink to excess, using alcohol to get by, forget about the nonsense jobs they are given and release their frustrations. Marines who come from very different backgrounds find commonality in drinking together.

"Next thing you know, you've got 30 Marines drinking," said a lance corporal. And, yes, many are underage.

A staff sergeant and substance abuse counselor with 11th Marines stressed the need for Marines to help one another. "We need to look after our buddies," he said. "It's likely that is the only way he is going to get help."

The price of not getting help can be steep. These days a young Marine will likely get kicked out with an administrative separation, one lance corporal who works in legal services warned the audience. "It's a shame," he said, noting seven Marines got the boot just in January. "Alcohol messed up their life."

The next performance of "Rum and Vodka" is scheduled for March 4 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

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