Between the trauma of war and the cold and darkness associated with living in Alaska, Fort Wainwright soldiers have a special predisposition to drink.
As members of the military and as Alaska residents, the more than 6,500 soldiers stationed at the far north military post are simultaneously part of two populations with histories of high alcohol consumption.
But under both national and local military leadership that’s gotten less tolerant of heavy drinking, Fort Wainwright soldiers face tough consequences if their alcohol use interferes with their duties or lands them in jail.
Military leaders in Alaska have tools to systematically fight alcohol misuse that aren’t available to civilian government leaders, things like compulsory drug and alcohol tests and the power to discharge soldiers with repeated substance misuse problems. These tools were previously focused primarily on illegal drugs, but a cultural shift in the military in the last 20 years has increasingly made alcohol misuse a priority.
Identifying the problem
At Fort Wainwright, alcohol is the drug for which soldiers most frequently seek counseling, followed by prescription opiate drugs and marijuana, according to Ron Huffman, the director of the Army Substance Abuse Program on post. At the clinic, just inside Fort Wainwright’s main gate, 68 percent of the soldiers seen by the post’s substance abuse counselors in 2015 came primarily because of alcohol problems, he said.
Huffman’s job exists because his superiors realized drug-dependent soldiers are bad for the Army, he said.
“When these soldiers are in Afghanistan or in Iraq or wherever, and they’ve got their buddies standing behind them, they deserve to be able to know and understand that the soldier is fully functional, fully capable of doing their job,” he said. “Alcohol and drug dependence degrades that capability.”
The Army is methodical about how it studies substance abuse. Huffman studies 21 substance abuse risk factors for the soldiers in every unit on base. They include alcohol crimes such as driving under the influence as well as issues that correlate with drug abuse, like financial problems, traffic tickets and cases of soldiers being absent without leave.
Huffman looks for clusters of problems in each of Fort Wainwright’s units. Once each quarter, leaders of each unit with problem clusters get a meeting with Huffman and the base’s top mental health officer to plan how to improve the unit’s performance.
Signs of success
Despite the wealth of data, it’s hard to know whether the base’s problems with drugs and alcohol have improved, Huffman said.
Rates of alcohol incidents show the scale of the problem, but they change with enforcement rates and other external factors. For example, Fort Wainwright had a rate of 3.99 “alcohol incidents” per 1,000 soldiers in the fourth quarter of 2015, Huffman said. The Army-wide average is 2.58. In Fairbanks, the alcohol incident rates usually increase in the winter and decrease in the summer, he said.
Nonetheless, Huffman believes things have improved. He points to a change in one statistic he thinks is especially telling: the rate of soldiers who seek drug or alcohol counseling before they get in trouble.
In the last quarter, just more than half of the soldiers who got counseling at Fort Wainwright’s Army Substance Abuse Program were required to go because of an incident such as an arrest or a drug-related medical problem. The other half were ordered to go by commanders or referred themselves to the clinic.
That’s changed since he started five years ago, when 85 percent to 90 percent of the clinic’s clients were forced to come because of drug or alcohol incidents.
“That tells you that the entire community, including the soldiers, know that there’s a place that they can go and that they can refer themselves without anything hanging over there head,” Huffman said. “Fifty percent self-referrals is really high, even for the Army.”
A changing culture
The military hasn’t always devoted so much energy to alcohol and drugs. A requirement for drug testing is a Vietnam War-era policy intended to combat marijuana and heroin use among troops deployed in Southeast Asia.
The military crackdown on alcohol misuse is newer. In the Pacific region the military began ordering breath-alcohol tests in conjunction with urine tests because of a 2005 U.S Army, Pacific order.
“Pacific command recognized that in Alaska and in Hawaii there was a high incidence of alcohol incidents and this was a way to deter,” Huffman said.
Unlike the urine test for illegal drugs, the alcohol breath test doesn’t flag soldiers who misuse alcohol when they’re off duty, but it can catch heavy users who report to duty with alcohol still in their system. An on-duty breath-alcohol content of 0.05 or greater opens up a soldier to criminal prosecution. That’s lower than the driving under the influence standard of 0.08 used by both the military and civilian authorities in Alaska.
Huffman and the drug and alcohol program’s other civilian leader, John Timmins, are both military veterans from an era when hard drinking was a more accepted part of the institution. Past military leaders tolerated heavy drinking because of the belief that it built camaraderie and relieved the stress of a dangerous job.
Timmins served in the Army in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Drinking on duty was so accepted in his experience that as a non-commissioned officer, he was expected to keep a bottle of liquor in his desk so he could offer a drink to officers, he said.
Timmins remembers a training exercise at Fort Benning, Georgia, when in an act of alcohol-fueled bravado, he dove under a moving tank to get in a position to toss a dummy explosive inside.
“When I did that, I realized that I’ve never checked to see if there’s really enough clearance under a tank. I saw that in a movie,” Timmins said.
He wasn’t crushed because he got lucky and the tank happened to have enough clearance for him to fit underneath.
Today, he tells the story as a warning about the risks that go with drinking on duty.
“Half of us were drunk because at the time we carried two canteens to the field. Only one had to have water. The other could have whatever you wanted,” he said.
“It was a culture and the culture has changed,” he said. “You’ve got a responsibility to set an example for these troops that you’re leading that we don’t tolerate that. You have to have personal responsibility.”
An event that catalyzed changing the acceptance of alcohol was the 1991 Tailhook scandal, he said. The drunken debauchery at a Navy aviators conference in Las Vegas led to the resignation of the secretary of the Navy and two admirals.
Today, a Fort Wainwright soldier who gets two DUI convictions over the course of a career can be discharged. It’s even stricter among Army aviation units, where one such conviction is grounds for discharge.
Not all the alcohol misuse solutions the Army has tried worked. In February 2013, Alaska’s statewide Army leadership experimented with prohibiting alcohol in the barracks at both Fort Wainwright and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. The policy was in place for less than two years.
Maj. Gen. Michael Garrett — then the U.S. Army Alaska Commander and now a lieutenant general — instituted the policy following a series of alcohol-related problems, including the fatal 2012 shooting of Pfc. Grant Wise in an Anchorage barracks room.
“When I receive a report of an incident in the barracks, one of my first questions is whether or not alcohol was involved,” Garrett wrote in an open letter to soldiers.
“Many times, the answer is yes. I don’t believe alcohol is to blame for every case of indiscipline that occurs in the barracks, but alcohol is often a major contributing factor.”
Garrett’s successor, Maj. Gen. Michael Shields, removed the alcohol restriction in 2014 after studying the policy for about a year.
Shields rescinded the ban on alcohol in the barracks because it hadn’t caused a significant reduction in alcohol problems and because it was causing new problems, said U.S. Army Alaska spokesman Lt. Col. Alan Brown when asked about the policy earlier this year.
“Incidents did not change dramatically, and there were concerns, particularly from commanders, that rather than stay in the relatively safe environment of the barracks — where you at least have your fellow soldiers and leaders in proximity — that soldiers were choosing to go off post more routinely,” Brown said.
Today, while there’s no ban on alcohol in the barracks, soldiers are restricted by how much they can have in a barracks room. A soldier who’s older than 21 can have alcohol in his barracks room, but no more than a 12-pack of beer, two bottles of wine or a fifth of a bottle of liquor.
Increased testing and education
Soldiers at Fort Wainwright take more drug and alcohol tests and spend more hours in alcohol and drug training than soldiers in the Army at large.
On average, four times each year, each Fort Wainwright soldier must pee into a cup and blow into a breath-test tube. The rate of 4.22 drug tests per soldiers per year — last year’s average — is more than twice the Army average, Huffman said.
The higher testing rate is by design. To incentivize testing, the Fort Wainwright ASAP office pays for the urine and breath test equipment. Usually unit leaders have to pay for the tests out of their own budget. Fort Wainwright has had higher-than average testing rates since before Huffman started five years ago.
“That’s not saying the Army’s doing anything wrong. We know we have a more high-risk population here,” he said. “The attitude is Alaska is just a high-risk attitude, and with high risk comes high stress and with high stress comes self-medication.”
Fort Wainwright is also about twice the average for time spent in alcohol and drug education. The Army requires each soldier to attend four hours of drug and alcohol training each year. Unlike most Army posts, they meet that standard at Fort Wainwright, said Timmins, who keeps a big board in the hallway of the ASAP office with dates each unit received training.
The ASAP office is decorated with tri-fold posters on some of the subjects taught in classes, including synthetic marijuana, fetal alcohol syndrome and celebrities who have died from drug overdoses.
A popular mass-produced poster that’s available for any unit to take illustrates the actual alcohol content of mixed drinks to correct the common and problem-causing misconception that a mixed drink from a bar equals one serving of alcohol. There’s also a set of tricycles that soldiers can pedal while wearing goggles that simulate visual distortions from being drunk.
The training is done by unit prevention leaders, soldiers in each company-sized unit who do drug and alcohol testing and education in addition to their other duties.
On a Wednesday afternoon last month, a class of 16 officers and non-commissioned officers were in the ASAP office practicing the science of sealing and recording urine sample bottles to forensic standards. Each bottle is sealed with a thin red tape and shipped to a laboratory in Hawaii. The new unit prevention leaders learned tricks past soldiers have used to evade drug tests. For example, the students heard about a white soldier who was famously caught trying to fool a drug test using a dark-skinned prosthetic penis.
The students spent a week training to become unit prevention leaders.
One of their teachers was Staff Sgt. Matthew Crawford, a former infantry soldier who works full-time in the ASAP office as a senior unit prevention leader. Being a unit prevention leader is an under-appreciated duty in the Army, he said.
“A lot of people put it as one of those small additional duties,” he said. “A good (unit prevention leader) is always working.”
The end result of the thorough testing regime is a culture in which people don’t think they can get away with using drugs because of the constant randomized tests, Crawford said.
“At the end of the day, we’re not playing gotcha,” he said. “Aggressive testing will deter. If you know that I’m testing weekly — you may not know what day or time it’s coming — you’re less likely to go through the hassle of trying to dilute your system and you’re probably not going to do drugs. Because you know it’s coming.”
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter
Originally published March 30, 2016 by Sam Friedman in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner