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3-star aims to prevent alcohol abuse with conversations

April 10, 2015 (Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. James W. Clark/Marine Corps)

For Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, the call to action came when he read a news report about 1st Lt. Matthew Davis, a California-based Marine, husband and father who was hit and killed by a drunk driver Nov. 7, 2014. The driver who hit him was allegedly another West Coast Marine who had gotten behind the wheel after an evening of drinking.

"I read that and said, "OK, that's enough,'" Neller, commander of Marine Corps Forces Command, told Marine Corps Times in a phone interview.

Within the next two months, Neller plans to roll out a campaign across East Coast bases aimed at getting Marines to rethink their relationship with alcohol. He hopes an effort to reduce Marine Corps alcohol-related crime and tragedy — which he says includes domestic violence, drug abuse and even incidents of suicide — can begin with conversations at the rank-and-file level.

The elements of Neller's planned effort are simple. He's planning a poster campaign with the tagline "Keep what you've earned," to remind Marines that rank, pay, benefits and position could all be lost after just one drunken incident. Neller is also working to recruit "influencers" from the Marine Corps community who will serve as celebrity spokespeople for the campaign to carry the message. He is also working with focus groups to further develop messaging and promotion, and hopes to take advantage of the Marine Corps' social media network to further the campaign's reach.

Alcohol abuse is far from a new problem within the Marine Corps.

A 2004 study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that Marines had a significantly higher prevalence of heavy drinking than their counterparts in other services. The data, compiled from 2001 to 2002, found that 38.6 percent of male Marines surveyed had consumed five or more drinks on one occasion at least once a week within the past 30 days, compared with 32.2 percent of men across the entire Defense Department. Nearly 13 percent of female Marines had also engaged in that kind of heavy drinking, the study found, compared with 8.1 percent across the DoD. Those rates meant Marines were more than twice as likely to engage in heavy drinking than members of the civilian population.

Neller said he knew that Marines' history and culture, including the fact that the Corps had been formed in Pennsylvania's Tun Tavern in 1775, bred a greater acceptance of heavy drinking and even alcohol abuse among Marines.

"It's real easy to throw up your hands and say, 'The Marine Corps started in a bar, Marines drink, there's nothing you can do about it,'" he said.

But the prevalence of tragic incidents tied to alcohol means the way Marines thinking about drinking needs to change, he said.

Neller said he does not anticipate his campaign will include new restrictions on alcohol use and possession. While he said he may look into existing policies governing how much alcohol Marines can keep in their barracks rooms to ensure the rules are being followed, he said he's aware that alcohol is legal to purchase and easily accessible for Marines who want it.

Instead, he said he's hoping his effort will persuade Marines to take a hard look at their attitudes and assumptions regarding drinking, and what may be on the line if they lose control.

"I'm not looking for 100 percent; I'm looking to try to do better;" he said. "I'm looking to at least have the conversation. Abuse of alcohol doesn't have a rank or a gender or a race or a color. We all need to be more disciplined."

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