Mandatory breathalyzer tests coming to Navy, Marine Corps

Monday - 3/5/2012, 5:33pm EST

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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(Editor's Note: This story was updated on March 6, 2012, 3:15 a.m.)

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN — The Navy intends to begin requiring every sailor reporting for duty on board a ship each day to undergo a breathalyzer test, part of a wider effort to curb the knock-on effects of alcohol abuse in the service.

The alcohol programs are, in turn, part of a much broader Navy and Marine Corps plan to redesign and consolidate personnel and readiness programs following 10 years of war. Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy; Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations; and Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of Marine Corps Forces Command announced the changes aboard the USS Bataan in Norfolk, Va. Monday afternoon.

Navy officials said sailors will start seeing the alcohol screening equipment being installed on ships throughout the fleet later this year. Once up and running, each duty crew reporting on board ship for the day will be subjected to breathalyzer tests, and other sailors will be subjected to the tests at random, similar to the way the military services administer drug tests.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus addresses sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) outlining the new 21st century sailor and Marine initiative. (U.S. Navy photo by: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Betsy Knapper)

The Marine Corps also will begin introducing the tests to selected units beginning in April.

"This is not done to punish, but to help," Mabus said. "We want to help sailors and marines make good choices before something happens that can't be undone."

The tests would not only be non-punitive, they would also not be legally admissible, a senior navy official said. The plan is intended to let commanders of individual vessels get an early heads-up if a servicemember has an alcohol problem.

Navy department officials believe irresponsible drinking is the common denominator in a host of personnel problems ranging from DUIs to sexual assault to domestic violence to suicide. The extension of breathalyzer tests throughout the fleet follows what Navy officials said was a successful pilot program in the Pacific submarine force, which saw a decrease of 45 percent in alcohol related-incidents after the tests began. Currently, around 180 sailors per month are charged with DUI across the fleet.

Accompanying the screening program will be a new educational campaign that seeks to educate sailors and marines about responsible alcohol use and a series of public service announcements from fellow servicemembers under the heading of a campaign the services have dubbed "Who will stand your watch?"

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations talks with reporters, from left, Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal, Jared Serbu of Federal News Radio and Chas Henry of WNEW, aboard a military business jet on March 5, 2012 during a trip to Norfolk, Va., where he and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus rolled out several new initiatives for sailors and Marines. (Photo by Gina Cavallaro/Marine Corps Times)

Officials also announced a new capability to test for the synthetic marijuana drug "Spice," whose use has been a growing problem for military leaders. 700 sailors and marines were investigated for using the drug last year. While the initial program will be operated by an unspecified contractor, the Navy will absorb the capability into its own medical command soon, officials said.

The changes Mabus and other senior leaders announced Monday are part of a sweeping five-pillar revamp of personnel programs called the 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative. The intent, Navy officials said, was to take a more holistic approach to the health and well-being of individual servicemembers rather than trying to tackle one problem at a time.

"When a sailor or marine's time in the military ends, whether it's after four years or 40, we want your productive life to continue, and for you to leave the service in better health, more trained and better educated than when you came in," Mabus said.

Also among the changes, the Navy and Marine Corps will launch a new smoking cessation program, including free tools to help sailors and marines quit tobacco. To avoid sending mixed messages, the services also plan to stop subsidizing the sale of tobacco products in military base exchanges and aboard ships.

Additionally, officials said the initiative includes new efforts to retain the experience their forces had built up during wartime by smoothing the transition between the active and reserve components of the two services.

Another retention effort focuses specifically on women. Officials said there tends to be an exodus of female members from the services during their childbearing years. To encourage them to stay in, the Navy and Marine Corps will offer 12-month deferments from operational assignments for new mothers. A new pilot program will let both officers and enlisted personnel with new families move into the inactive ready reserve for up to three years while still retaining health benefits and a stipend amounting to one-fifteen of their salary. Other plans include flexible work hours and telework options in some commands.

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