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Marines to undergo random Breathalyzer tests

The alcohol screening program 'is primarily for deterrence and education,' but commanders can hand out punishment, Marine Lt. Gen. R.E. Milstead Jr. says.

December 23, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — Starting Jan. 1, Marines at Camp Pendleton and other bases will be subject to random Breathalyzer tests twice a year under what is billed as the toughest anti-drinking policy in the U.S. military.

An order issued by Lt. Gen. R.E. Milstead Jr., deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, calls for any Marine or sailor with a blood-alcohol level of 0.01% or higher to be referred for counseling. Any Marine or sailor who tests at 0.04% or higher will be referred to medical personnel to determine his or her fitness for duty.

Milstead said that although the new order "is primarily for deterrence and education," nothing precludes commanders from handing out punishment. Each unit will have an officer or staff noncommissioned officer to act as the alcohol screening program coordinator.

In California, a driver with a 0.08% blood-alcohol level is considered drunk, and his or her driver's license is immediately suspended. A single drink can lead to a level of 0.01%.

In September, a study by the Institute of Medicine, sponsored by the Department of Defense, found that binge drinking, often called "sport drinking," is increasing among military personnel in all branches.

In 1998, 35% of personnel admitted to binge drinking in the previous year. In 2008, the last year for which statistics were available, that figure had risen to 47%. Twenty percent of personnel classified themselves as "heavy" drinkers.

Noting that "alcohol has long been part of military culture," the study's authors, including professors from USC and UC San Francisco, called for better leadership from the top of the chain of command in curbing excess drinking. Among the recommendations was "routine screening for excessive alcohol consumption."

Under the Marine order, monthly reports about the results of the alcohol screening program will be kept by each Marine unit, and quarterly reports will be submitted to Marine Corps headquarters.

In fiscal 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, the Marine Corps reported 13 alcohol-related deaths among Marines in this country and abroad. Included were Marines killed by vehicle and motorcycle crashes, one from falling 17 stories from a building, one from attempting to run across a freeway near Camp Pendleton and several that occurred during binge drinking when the Marine passed out and could not be revived.

Officials have also expressed alarm about a link between alcohol abuse and cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.

In June, a Marine Corps report indicated that there had been 333 reported cases of sexual assault corpswide in the previous year and that in most cases, the aggressor, the victim or both had been drinking.

In a precede to that report, Commandant Gen. James Amos wrote: "Despite our efforts, we have been ineffective at addressing and eliminating sexual assault within our ranks."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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