What in the World: On naval debauchery

Sailors are a perfidious lot of rabble-rousers if ever there were any. Take four steps outside any naval base and you will find three establishments: strip clubs, strip bars and strip payday loan stores — I exaggerate only slightly. Two heavily mortgaged Ford Mustangs and a Harley will be hang-doggedly for sale in the parking lot adjacent, because some young sailor thought an $800 monthly payment was doable on $1600 per month pay. Suffice it to say that sailors live fast and loose as a general rule. But why is this the case and is there a way to stymy such recklessness?

Let us inspect the life of a sailor to better understand him. Deployed sailors typically work 12- to 16-hour days, with no weekends or days off, for months at a time. Moreover, the available hours for sleep are unlikely to be continuous, as they are often interrupted for drills or mandatory training. Even when the opportunity arises to sleep, aircraft will be launching and landing a few dozen feet above your head — hardly the sound of a burbling stream to lull one to sleep. Of course, there is also always the chance some Podunk country or militant group wants to take a shot at you — not ideal for you in the short-term or them in the long-term.

Eventually, the ship docks in some foreign port, let’s say the Philippines. The sailor emerges from the raucous cocoon of the ship with his entire paycheck in hand — not having had the opportunity to spend it over the last month — and thinks, “I deserve a drink.” A summary of his evening can be catalogued thus: he gets a drink to unwind and forget about his worries; then another, forgetting his tolerance for alcohol has become almost nil since he has been at sea; gets a third — possibly eleventh — drink and he is likely fully sauced and decides he would like to visit a strip club. 

He totters over to the club and proceeds to spend an unholy sum of money to feel momentarily important. Having run through most, if not all, of his funds at this juncture, he becomes irritable and, historically speaking, has a proclivity towards taking a swing at his cab driver on the way back to the ship. The police understandably get involved and he finds himself sitting in the drunk tank with all of the other sailors who forgot their manners and lack of alcohol tolerance.

Certainly some of the issue is with the long-standing culture of alcohol dependency in the military, specifically the Navy. An appalling, oft-repeated joke is that by the time an enlisted member makes Chief (E-7), they will have three DUIs and two divorces. These are not the makings of a well-adjusted individual. 

The saddest account I heard while stationed in San Diego was of a drunken sailor who, driving at high speed back to base while intoxicated, went off the side of the on-ramp to the Coronado Bay Bridge and crushed a family picnicking in the park underneath the bridge.  

This is devastating stuff. I have watched this story play out time and again and it really needs to stop for the sake of the sailors, the public and the girls (and boys) who are often trafficked to support the lascivious trades. 

One of the best strategies the Navy has developed to curtail needless drunkenness abroad is by offering tours and sporting opportunities come landfall. Instead of having the options of “bar and then strip club” or “strip club then bar,” there are now opportunities to climb Mt. Fuji in Japan, go snorkeling in the Philippines and surf in Hawaii. For those of a libertarian bent, fear not, for the tour funding comes from the sailors themselves, not from an extra tax levied against the already tax-ridden people of the United States. While this does nothing to curtail the drinking when in home port, these activities are a welcome alternative to drunken stupor come landfall elsewhere in the world.  

My suggestion for curbing the same at home would be random breathalyzer tests every morning. The Navy already does urinalysis tests for drug consumption, so there should really be no issue with testing service members for inebriation, seeing as they work on weapons systems and with heavy equipment. Won’t the civil liberties of the sailors be infringed? Service members do not get civil liberties except by military fiat — signing the contract is signing away one’s life to the country. We need to know the person working on the anti-ship missiles has their mental faculties operating at full capacity.

The military is tough and I understand the desire for escape in the form of a bottle, yet this is ultimately unhealthy and damaging to the readiness of military members and their families, which is ever the highest priority. My gratitude to those who continue to serve at home and abroad.

Thank you for reading. Comments, ire and suggestions can be directed to abell@lawrence.edu. If you have any ideas to curb alcoholism in the military, let me know.