Best Defense

Breathalyzers: Another Navy Dept. nail in the coffin of ‘special trust and confidence’

By  "John Paul Lejeune" Best Defense Guest columnist Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced on March 5 a new personnel initiative applicable to the Navy and Marine Corps called "21st Century Sailor and Marine" (21CSM), which is designed to "maximize Sailor and Marine personal readiness" — a laudable goal.  As a serving active duty ...


By  "John Paul Lejeune"

Best Defense Guest columnist

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced on March 5 a new personnel initiative applicable to the Navy and Marine Corps called "21st Century Sailor and Marine" (21CSM), which is designed to "maximize Sailor and Marine personal readiness" — a laudable goal. 

As a serving active duty officer in either the Navy or the Marine Corps, north of O-3 and south of the FO/GO ranks, I wonder if the enhancement in personal readiness occasioned by breathalyzers will be worth the trade-off in flagging morale, professional insult, and perceptions of detached, out of touch senior leadership. I will tell you this:  Getting a breathalyzer after morning PT as a precondition for working like hell for the rest of the day has great potential to piss me right off.

While the "in the weeds" specifics of how the breathalyzer program will work are not yet revealed, the general contours of the program are that Navy leaders will administer breathalyzers to operational unit work sections duty sections — apparently everyone on duty, including, presumably, ship and squadron commanders — plus "random" samples of other sailors in shore and support commands. No probable cause. No reason to suspect alcohol use, much less abuse. One size fits all screening of everyone, regardless of rank, career status, history of alcohol use or abuse, duty performance, or billet. Marine units will phase in the breathalyzers later, after the Navy beta tests the program.

This is among the most paternalistic, professionally insulting concepts I’ve seen in all my years of service, and I’m not sure I will submit. Yes, I know my options, and I just may exercise them and go right over the side the first time the duty blowmeister shoves a plastic tube in my face and treats me like a drunk driver for daring to report for duty. To the CNO, CMC, CMC of the Navy, and SgtMaj of the Marine Corps, here’s my question:  At what point will one of you four exercise your duty to tell the Secretary of the Navy, "Hey, Boss, WTF, over?" and that he really ought to fire whichever clown came up with this idea to screen everyone to identify serial alcohol abusers who are readily identifiable through other means.  One or more of you needs to find the moral courage to recommend relegating this part of the initiative to the dustbin of really bad naval ideas.

Secretary Mabus’ speech announcing the initiative notes "[t]he test will be used only as a training and prevention tool…This is a deterrence tool used to identify and direct appropriate counseling or treatment before any of those career or life-altering incidents happen." Well, which is it, a training and prevention tool or a deterrence tool? Deterrence usually equals avoiding some bad outcome, which is inconsistent with viewing this as a "training and prevention" tool. We can’t have it both ways. Moreover, the Secretary notes the program will be "used to identify and direct appropriate counseling before any of those…incidents happen." This is because the time-honored tradition of assessing sailors and Marines by looking them in the eye at quarters or morning formation and holding them accountable for showing up for duty under the influence of alcohol — what some old salts used to call "personal leadership" —  is an insufficiently precise way of knowing who is drinking too much. This "program" is encouraging "leaders" to default to a plastic straw and digital display in place of demonstrating the moral courage required to pull a promising petty officer or sergeant out of formation and haul him to the infirmary for a fitness for duty physical.

Secretary Mabus observed:  "In 13 of 20 recent Navy Commanding Officers relieved, alcohol was a component in the incident for which they were relieved." So, according to Secretary Mabus and the cowardly sycophants who thought up this scheme, the problem is not that we have poor character development and command screening processes. Rather, the problem is that we can’t possibly tell when people are drinking too much and displaying conduct which suggests they might not be fit for command. And breathalyzing every O-5 and O-6 on duty ensures that we will have the soberest bunch of moral coward commanders in the history of the naval force. The solution to commanding officers abusing their positions in alcohol related incidents isn’t character development and rigorous screening. The solution is a breathalyzer. Oh. My. God. What have we become?

I am keenly aware that alcoholism threatens readiness and the lives, well-being, families, and professional performance of sailors and Marines. I’ve had alcoholic service members work for me, I have seen it control their lives, and I think I have done my duty to get them help when I could and to hold them accountable when I must. I am also intensely aware that the fix is in holding leaders accountable for exercising due diligence with regard to educating and influencing their sailors and Marines on the dangers and consequences of alcohol abuse.  That does not mean every ship CO or battalion commander is going to see the old man for every DUI in his unit. It does mean that if a ship CO or battalion commander has cultured a leadership environment in which clear signs of alcohol abuse are tolerated or even encouraged, and if there is a spike in alcohol-related incidents in the command, service senior leaders are going to take a hard look at what is going on inside the unit. Leaders exercising their solemn duty to junior sailors and Marines, who have even a modicum of intuition about their charges, can figure out who is sucking the worm out of the bottle every night without resorting to the extraordinary insulting and distrustful measure of breathalyzing every shipmate who steps across the brow and every Marine who marches into a gun park.  Of course this might require the unthinkable: For the squadron XO to come in on a weekend and walk through the barracks, for the Master Chief to get off his ass in the Chief’s Mess and head down to troop berthing, and for the company commander to fire a 1stSgt hiding a platoon sergeant’s alcohol problem. Egad, it might even require a flag or general officer to look at his O-6 brigade or group commanders for regular signs of red faces and bloodshot eyes. It might require — wait for it — leadership — for officers to be officers and not simply Powerpoint producers or flag mess food blisters.

Think of the signal this program sends to our officers, specifically our junior officers:  welcome to the fold; you are the next generation of captains and colonels, admirals and generals; we love you like our younger brothers and sisters; we expect enormous productivity, professionalism, and sacrifice out of you; we entrust you with monumental responsibility; we want you to think strategically year to year while acting tactically day to day; we want you to blow in a tube like you are Lindsay Lohan in return for the privilege of showing up, embracing your mortality daily, and working really hard in dangerous and austere conditions for modest pay and recognition. Who wouldn’t want to keep taking that deal? If corporate leadership tried this stunt in a Fortune 500 company, they would get a considerable reaction from the union or the labor force, and their retention programs would suffer massively. Labor simply would not stand for an invasive program like this. The military is different, and we just roll over for it. Maybe it is time for military leaders to start thinking about our service members more like a labor force (any active duty member who says the military is categorically different and does not respond to human resources programs in the same way as a civilian labor force:  Please return your reenlistment bonuses, flight pay, and subsidized health care stipends to the U.S. Treasury at once, and call personnel to zero out your generous annual leave balance).  Leaders should recognize that it is possible to cross redlines with the force. 

Personally, this is a redline for me.

So here is one version of how this plays out:  Lieutenant Umptefrats and Captain Beltbuckle, classmates at the Naval Academy, meet up in Honolulu. Close friends at the Academy who boxed the same weight class and remain within 5 pounds of each other, Umptefrats is a division officer on the USS Chosin and Beltbuckle commands a company in Third Marines.  Smart, sharp, dedicated, and diligent, they work hard — real hard — enduring separation from their young families for months at a time conducting and supporting combat and presence operations at sea and ashore. Their wives give them their liberty card to go out together. It’s a weeknight, so both officers are keenly aware that they have to keep it in check. Still, the beer starts flowing and the stories about misdeeds in Bancroft Hall abound. Each of them has 5 beers before they call it a night just after midnight. They take taxis home. When each of them reports for duty at 0630 the next morning, their breathalyzers register .013. Neither is impaired, and both are fully prepared to execute a full workday. Absent a breathalyzer, no one on the ship or in the battalion would likely know or care that either officer had even been out the night before. Now, with both officers showing up and blowing very low alcohol levels, their COs are notified. Each officer is called in to see the XO so he can evaluate them for himself and counsel them on responsible use of alcohol. Whispers about "drunk on duty" start circulating, both officers get a little scared for their careers. Then they get pissed at being treated like a problem child trooper with 3 NJPs in his book, snatched by the Shore Patrol out of a drunken bar brawl in Phuket. How long before both these guys start counting the days until their five years are up so they can go back to grad school on the GI Bill?

We have tools for determining whether Umptefrats and Beltbuckle, their sergeants and chiefs, their seamen and Marines are abusing alcohol: daily observation; evaluation of duty performance; perceptions of peers; knowledge of life stressers; receipt of information about financial troubles; brushes with law enforcement. We don’t need another one size fits all tool that screens everyone to identify a few, and the leadership doesn’t need to insult everyone and treat us all like wayward teenagers in order to identify a relative few folks who would dare show up for duty under the influence of alcohol. 

This tool is categorically different than the inspections we conduct to detect the presence of illicit drugs:  Unlike the urinalysis program, this "leadership" instrument threatens to sweep up members of the force for engaging in perfectly lawful activity, even tacitly encouraged by the government through the sale of booze in exchanges and clubs. Unlike the urinalysis program, which is virtually the only way to determine whether a service member smokes marijuana during weekend liberty periods, we have options with regard to diagnosing alcohol abuse. Moreover, it is cumulative:  we already sacrifice some measure of privacy for the greater good by submitting to random drug testing, even though the vast majority of the force does not and would not use illicit drugs. This program in its current form is needlessly invasive, professionally insulting and misguided. It warrants a hard look by the uniformed senior leadership in reevaluating their advice to the secretary, who may be so far removed from his own uniformed service that he misunderstands the contemporary military. If retained, it should be administered selectively, in the same way that the services test for steroids (supported by facts which add up to probable cause), not daily breathalyzers across the force.

The remaining issue this officer has to sort out is how I will react personally when the breath Stasi try to make me blow into an breathalyzer as a precondition for reporting for duty.  I might just say no, and take a day of leave on short notice.  When my commander later hears about it and has "the discussion," that conversation might offramp into discussion of other topics, like my transition off active duty. I understand the leadership’s fervent desire to mitigate operational and personnel risk and help those with alcohol problems to get counseling and continue to serve honorably. Treating every service member — including tee-teetotalers and moderate social drinkers who comprise the vast majority of the force — like a DUI suspect without cause is a flawed methodology for getting from here to there. It is reactive leadership at its finest, and bespeaks a lack of understanding of the modern force.

"John Paul Lejeune" is an active duty naval officer with more than 10 and less than 25 years of service.  He is leaving his service identity and rank undisclosed to emphasize that this is a leadership issue for both the Navy and Marine Corps.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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