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Alcohol Culture

If you want to visit a sensitive subject within the Coast Guard, just start talking about the alcohol culture.  The top leadership (and I use that term loosely – leadership that is), has lived in denial about the issue just about forever.

When I first joined the Coast Guard in 1983, I didn’t exactly know what to expect.  Let’s face it; you don’t exactly question a recruiter about how the party scene is while you are going through the application process.  I got my first hint when I reported to Officer Candidate School in August.  I reported on Saturday a little after noon.  Since the school didn’t “officially” start until Noon the next day, those of us who arrived early were invited to attend the annual Coast Guard Day picnic that was being held that afternoon.  In those days, OCS was held at the Coast Guard Training Center in Yorktown, VA.  It was an absolutely beautiful summer day.  You would have had to be blind not to notice the large amount of alcohol consumption that was going on.  I kind of figured we wouldn’t be doing this too often in OCS so I took full advantage of the situation.

During OCS (once liberty was granted), I would estimate that 90% of the class basically went out somewhere and got loaded.  How can I be so sure?  Well, more often than not, I was one of that 90%.  We had one classmate who was so bad that he had to be carried out of his room on a Saturday morning prior to inspection.  The duty officer found out about it and said that how we handled the situation showed great teamwork and that he was proud.  Now I’m not going to kid anyone – I consume my fair share of booze, but this guy was truly a raging alcoholic that really did need help.  Instead he was commissioned as an Ensign in the Coast Guard.  Unfortunately for the young man, he was really not able to control himself while assigned to an operational unit.  After a second DUI conviction in under a year the guy was put out in the street and didn’t even make Lieutenant (junior grade).

When I got to Detroit, I was warned by the guy I was taking over from that he had actually been marked lower for “failing to meet social obligations” on his last evaluation.  He didn’t drink and didn’t like being around people who were drinking.  Oddly enough I never had that problem.  I didn’t run with the enlisted crowd, but some of the stories you heard were pretty good.  As the Group Morale Officer, one of my principle functions was organizing the annual Coast Guard Day Picnic as well as the occasional Friday afternoon morale party at the base.  Pretty much the primary goal of the attendees was to get as intoxicated as possible as quickly as possible.  I would conservatively estimate that 90% of the staff at Group Detroit drank in those days and probably 20% were serious alcoholics.  Again, I’m hardly a member of the WCTU, but we had multiple people who would pick up a six pack for the ride home (at least they were in car pools and not driving).

During my time in Kodiak from 1985 to 1987 I was really exposed to the alcohol culture of the time.  Of the 47 crewmembers on the Ironwood, less than a half dozen were non-drinkers.  The underage guys did their drinking around a campfire on Nyman Peninsula near where the ship docked.  In spite of the super heavy drinking rate, only a couple guys ever got in trouble with drinking.

As the Coast Guard got tougher on alcohol use the result was very predictable; consumers of alcoholic beverages went “underground” for lack of a better term. 

Another problem was with the term “Alcohol Related Incident.”  Because of the severity of having an ARI on your record, many commanding officers were very reluctant to assign the term unless they were specifically required by regulation.  An example of this would be something like a DUI conviction.  Of course, there were some units where the command absolutely loved to deal out these ARI’s.  Of course, uneven enforcement of generally vague regulations and policy is never a good thing.  What goes from normal operations at some units will get you in deep trouble at others.  Again, if you were assigned to a “strict” unit, this caused more underground drinking.

What made the whole thing a joke was that most of the Command Drug and Alcohol Representatives (I always wondered if people outside the organization thought that was the person who organized parties – it wasn’t) were some type of reformed drunk.  Of course, the only two things worse than a reformed drunk is someone who has got religion and a woman with a cause.  I can only imagine how bad it would be if a CDAR was a women who was an ex-drunk who along the way “found” religion and had determined that the job was her new cause.  That would be impossible for sure.  Most of these guys had some holier than thou attitude and after their week of training on the subject from another idiot figured they knew more than your average doctor or any other professional.  I need only direct the reader to my experience at my final Coast Guard day picnic in Detroit in 1985 when our CDAR was so intoxicated that his wife made him ride home in the back of their pickup truck in case he hurled.

As you might expect, there were plenty of guys who marginally got in trouble with drinking in Kodiak.  As I mentioned above, not so much on the Ironwood because we pretty much looked after our own.  The base command contracted with a local counselor to “evaluate” members that had alcohol related incidents.  They were fired when too many guys were determined to just be immature jerks, not alcoholics.  The powers that were at the base, you know, the guys with a week of training, had already made their determination and just wanted the professional to rubber stamp it.  When this professional wouldn’t, they were sacked.  I guess in their mind the truth was irrelevant and overrated at the same time.

Probably my “best” experience with the whole craziness of alcohol policy in the Coast Guard involved one of my guys in Huntington and where else but our Training Center in Yorktown, VA.  Let’s not kid ourselves here, this guy was a big time drinker and I knew it.  I’ll openly admit that I may have tipped a few with him on the golf course from time to time.  He was also one of the best workers I had.  He knew his job well and never let me down.  Anyway, one evening he was at the “Liberty Lounge”, the bar run by the base.  Naturally he consumed enough beer to become intoxicated.  Somehow he got into a slight altercation with another guy.  No one was hurt and there was no property damage but the bartender called base security.  By the time they arrived my guy had left but these people don’t quit and of course someone gave him up.  The next day he was essentially dismissed from the school and returned to Huntington.   Naturally the guy was scared and I suppose I could have thrown the book at him up to and including him out of the service.  Instead, I asked him for the details and honestly believed him based on what I already knew about the guy.  Sadly, Training Center Yorktown did the paperwork necessary to charge him with a dreaded ARI, but they left everything else up to me.  I did the bare minimum as required by the Personnel Manual and had him evaluated locally.  The answer from the pros was exactly what I thought it would be; the guy had some maturity issues at times, but was no lost cause.

About a month later, I received a call from a Lieutenant at the Training Center asking about our man.  He initially asked to speak with the Executive Officer, but he was out for the afternoon and I took the call.  He asked me if I was familiar with the incident.  I told him that of course I was.  I sensed that the discussion wasn’t going to be productive.  He then asked what we had done and why there were no new entries in our personnel database.  I don’t think he liked my answer which was that it was over as far as I was concerned.  The guy got a little too frisky with me and I advised him to choose his next words very carefully.  He told me that he would be reporting to the base XO and that he would probably call my boss in New Orleans to discuss my disregard for proper procedure.  I advised him that I had already discussed it with my supervisor and he was as disgusted as me that the same bartender that served a man to the point of intoxication then called security about it.  I told him I would love to discuss how messed up the entire unit (Yorktown, not mine) was.  It’s funny, I never did hear from either him or the base Executive Officer.

Frankly I never really cared for the Coast Guard’s Alcohol Policy.  It was vague and frequently applied in a very uneven manner.  As such, it was rife with problems.  Once a guy (or gal) got caught up in it their life would basically suck.  You were pretty much marked for life (or at least the rest of your career - that is if it wasn't finished).

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