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Home : News
NEWS | June 20, 2014

Commentary - Recommit to addressing alcohol use

By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith I.G. Brown Training and Education Center

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. - Summer is upon us and with it parties and intoxication.

Just where you stand on alcohol consumption can affect you and others for a lifetime.

The Pentagon announced a service-wide review of alcohol policies in May, and just last year the Army, Navy and Marine Corps enacted new limits on alcohol sales at its bases. It is a change in addressing how intoxication may contribute to assaults as well as in what hours of the day a service member can buy beer, wine and liquor.

As a “teetotaler” in the Air Force, these changes have no effect on my lifestyle, but I do have some latitude to provide my personal opinion.

My years of service had some influence on why I choose not to consume recreational intoxicants today. I do not attend military-related events or off-duty events where alcohol’s served, and I voice my opinion against alcohol consumption.

Again, this is the personal opinion of one Airman, presented in a rather passive commentary.

It comes from my years of experiences where alcohol often became the foundation to a gathering - maybe sending a message to younger ranks that one needs to be intoxicated to relax, converse and enjoy friends and family. It’s not; although, it can sometimes lead to blowing off steam rather inappropriately.

I dare anyone reading to give me one example of how intoxication is kind to service members.

It’s not surprising that more and more folks are coming to that position in times where everything we do is under social media surveillance and that the fallout of alcohol abuse incidents is not worth the national-level trouble it could make for the services and the community.

Discouraging alcohol abuse is nothing new to the military - but its progress seems slow, and we need to do it because we care about our people.

In a poll on my base during a sexual harassment training stand-down last year, the top reason service members’ opinions gathered for the spark that lights a sexual assault was ... alcohol abuse. And it may have been a highly visible, national, alcohol-related incident that contributed to that mandatory training.

That is actually progress because year’s past alcohol may not have been pointed to in open training as a potential problem in such cases; let alone, announced in a review by our top leaders.

It is already among our biggest, seasonal safety messages: “Don’t drink and XXX.” (Insert your verb: drive, boat, bike, fly, spelunk, etc.)

What’s too much alcohol anyway? Is it the safe driving BAC limit? Is it the personal-health limit? My Air Force Core Values clearly state that the excessive consumption of alcohol casts doubt on an individual’s fitness.

I recall during my initial service that I could go ashore as a young sailor and buy a beer from the pop machines on base. No limits, except what was in the machine, which went empty regularly.

It was common rumor that our unit had one of worst reputations at that time for alcohol-related problems. A late watch once seemed to me like the scene of an old war movie, with service members stumbling to quarters from a night of excess. Clearly, unfit.

No one seemed to pay it much attention; that is, until someone caused trouble.

Drinking and even drunkenness seemed a rite-of-passage to this young service member who was encouraged toward alcohol at social gatherings and events.

I drank excessively on occasion too - many did - because it seemed expected, and I wanted to be accepted by those around me, who wanted to be accepted by those around them. Now, I am no better for any of it.

I learned the hard way, unfortunately, though those bad choices.

Today I am a fortunate enough to be a senior noncommissioned officer, and the Air Force’s Enlisted Force Structure, 36-2618, tells me I am responsible to take my knowledge and experience (in choosing not to drink) to provide constructive input to best meet the challenges facing organizations.

It was not until later in my service - when a beloved supervisor of mine was found dead on his couch (from what those who knew him suspected was severe alcohol abuse) that I gained my sobering position.

There were signs and opportunities that I believe not acted upon, maybe because drinking cultures indirectly hid it. I felt that we failed someone close to us. Could we have saved his life?

Perhaps not, but it is a question I hope you never have to ask yourself, because it is a haunting one.

“Are you OK,” my wife will ask sometimes. “You look sad.”

“Yeah, just thinking of a friend,” I will tell her.

I try to make up for my past possible inactions today by pointing out the dangers of intoxication and about being a good “Wingman.” It helps that we cannot buy beer from the base pop machines anymore - as far as I know - but I think these recent steps toward responsible drinking were due. Our services-wide review is great, and welcome, and I hope it looks at our off-duty cultures and any mixed messages too.

The sooner intoxication is no longer an accepted, underground habit, the better we will be the professional Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Marine that we need to be. Moreover, potentials will not hinder at the elbow.