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Alcohol de-glamorization and accountability

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Special To The Japan Times

Due to a series of recent incidents, including two rapes, a murder, and a head-on collision caused by a female American sailor driving heavily intoxicated on the wrong side of the road, all in Okinawa, U.S. forces in Japan, particularly the navy, are increasing their so-called liberty restrictions. While these and other measures are necessary, everyone understands that sadly they will not be enough to stop stupid or evil people from doing what they do while 99.8 percent of other U.S. personnel members remain not only well-behaved but have done many selfless acts to save lives and render assistance.

With this said, however, there remain deeply entrenched institutional problems which will make it difficult to fix at least one serious issue — that of alcohol use and abuse by U.S. personnel, which causes them (like it would to any other person) to have impaired judgment and to get into a career-ending situation, or in some cases, a life-ending accident.

Indeed, most of the incidents that have happened off base (and on base, too) tend to be alcohol-related. Getting control over alcohol once and for all will help to further reduce our already low crime and incident rates. This requires both the de-glamorization of alcohol and the increased accountability of those in command, especially when they themselves might be at fault.

In the case of U.S. forces in Okinawa, there are several ironies involved. While the messaging seems to be “drink responsibly” through on-base radio broadcasts, etc., there are all too many events — also advertised in the same way — held on base where drinking is in fact the theme that brings everyone together. For example, the Okinapa Wine Festival is held every fall where a lot of cheap wine can be had for $40 per person. The event is apparently so popular that tickets have to be limited to four per person. Cinco de Mayo is also a popular event. I recall one meeting with a previous general in which after she heard a report from the military police about alcohol-generated incidents “out in town,” she turned to the assembled staff and asked about their plans to attend a Cinco de Mayo party. I was incredulous, but rumors were rife about over-imbibing by the general and her husband.

I am not against drinking personally and enjoy a glass of wine or a cold glass of beer like others, but I do cringe when I see it supported and encouraged institutionally. Indeed, with the drinking restrictions off base, personnel tend to heavily use the clubs on base (which is highly welcomed by the Marine Corps Community Services and other proprietors) and on-base incidents rise as a result of the so-called law of unintended (but easily foreseen) consequences.

A similar thing happened a few years later. During an MCCS briefing for a later base general, the director was excitedly telling him and the staff how they secured a plane to send two pallets of “American beer” to marines training in Darwin in time for the July 4 (2014) holidays. I was stunned that the same organization had recently told the general that it did not have enough money to continue to fund the homestay program I had created for children from the Tohoku disaster area, and yet it had the money to buy the beer and pay for it to be sent to Australia (which also has its own, better beer, by the way).

In retrospect, and this gets into the question of leadership accountability, I should not have been that surprised. It had been brought to my attention that spring that the same general had allegedly driven under the influence following a dinner at a nearby hotel with the head of the Okinawa Defense Bureau in late October 2013.

To his credit, the then-ODB director-general strongly encouraged the major general to use a taxi or a ride service, but the latter made up a series of excuses and took off in his own car for the 10-minute drive to his home through winding, hilly streets and at least three traffic lights, as well as the base gate. This was reported the next morning to the office director in which I worked by the interpreter, who also pleaded with the general not to drive, at the dinner. The office director, a full colonel who constantly worried about pleasing the general, did nothing about it.

The matter came to my attention six months later, in spring 2014, after I returned from a posting to another organization, III Marine Expeditionary Forces. Upon further investigation, I immediately reported it to the chief of staff, III MEF, who was deeply worried. Unfortunately, I never heard what became of the alleged DUI and coverup, and have subsequently requested, unsuccessfully, the related documents to be released as part of a case of likely recrimination against this writer.

As can be imagined, the major general’s reported DUI caused morale in our office to plummet, when we saw leaders flaunting the law and breaking their own policies on liberty restrictions without punishment or accountability. As the Foreign Ministry also knew about, it became a national security issue if blackmail or other pressure could be applied to the individuals in question.

Until the de-glamorization of alcohol and the assumption of personal accountability by the related organizations and its leaders are truly pursued, alcohol-related incidents will continue to happen at a rate higher than acceptable or understandable. Of course, Okinawan residents and Japanese citizens as a whole tend to enjoy their drinking as much if not more, and Okinawans have the highest rate of drunken-driving in the country for 26 years straight, but these facts do not absolve us from improving where we can.

Robert D. Eldridge served as deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan from 2009 to 2015 and now heads a think tank and foundation in Okinawa.