National Security & Defense

The Navy’s Debauchery Problem: An Enlisted Perspective

U.S. Navy sailors on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan as the ship arrives for a scheduled port visit in Busan, Republic of Korea, in 2017. (Mass Communication Specialist Third Class MacAdam Kane Weissman/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)
Senator Tom Cotton’s report on the service branch gets a lot right about the upper ranks, but the enlisted side remains in dire need of attention.

Senator Tom Cotton recently released a report detailing manifold flaws in the U.S. Navy’s warfighting capacity; at the end of it, he included eight recommendations for how the Navy can improve itself. Reviewing the suggestions, I think he has much correct. However, his prescriptions are understandably biased toward the upper brass and provide little direction for the enlisted side of the house — the people doing the work. Having served six years on that side in the Navy, rising to E-5, I believe much should be corrected in the enlisted ranks, from the culture to recruiting practices to the chain of command.

I’ll attempt to tackle each of these concerns in separate pieces but will begin with the Navy’s culture — which is most in need of reform. Easy to say, difficult to effect, I know.

Sailors — and I speak from experience — can be a mischievous lot of rabble-rousers and skirt-chasers. Take four steps outside any naval base, and — aside from a steadily frequented row of strip clubs, bars, and payday-loan shops — you’ll see some variation of two heavily mortgaged Ford Mustangs and a Harley for sale in the parking lot adjacent because some young sailors thought an $800 monthly payment was feasible on $1,600-a-month pay. Sailors live fast and loose as a general rule. But why is this the case, and is there a way to bring some old-fashioned military-style order to these habits?

Let us inspect the life of a sailor to understand him better. A deployed sailor typically works twelve-to-16-hour days, with no weekends or days off, for months at a time. Moreover, the available hours for sleep are unlikely to be continuous, as they are often interrupted for drills or mandatory training. Even when the opportunity arises to sleep, aircraft will launch and land a couple of meters above his head. Then there is also the chance some podunk country or militant group wants to take a shot at the ship, not ideal for sailors in the short-term or militants in the long-term once the weapons systems come to bear.

Eventually, the ship docks in some foreign port, let’s say the Philippines. The sailor emerges from the raucous cocoon of the ship with his entire paycheck in hand — not having had the opportunity to spend it over the last month — and thinks, “I deserve a drink.” A summary of his evening can be catalogued thus: he gets a beverage to unwind and set aside his worries, then another, forgetting his tolerance for alcohol has become almost nil since he has been at sea, gets a third — possibly eleventh — drink, and he is now thoroughly sauced and decides he would like to make friends with the local womenfolk.

He totters over to the club and proceeds to spend an unholy sum of money on women who make him feel momentarily important. Having run through most, if not all, of his funds at this juncture, he becomes irritable and, historically speaking, maybe takes a swing at his cab driver on the way back to the ship. The police get involved, and the sailor finds himself sitting in the drunk tank.

It would be bad enough if this culture only sprung into action overseas in ports where we’re trying to maintain friendly relations with the host country. But upon return to homeport, the drinking often continues, with a significant minority of one’s division showing up to work hungover or still drunk day after day. Call me a prude, but operating heavy machinery is dangerous enough without the aftereffects of a bender coursing through one’s system.

Shocking to none is the long-standing culture of alcohol dependency in the military, especially the Navy and Marine Corps. We’re the only branch with alcohol consumption in our anthem, and it’s a point of pride many sailors look to emulate daily. An appalling joke oft-repeated is that by the time an enlisted member makes chief (E-7) — a crowning achievement — he will have three DUIs and two divorces, not the makings of a well-adjusted individual whom junior sailors should revere.

The saddest account I heard while stationed in San Diego was of a sailor who, driving at high speed back to base while intoxicated, went off the side of the on-ramp to the Coronado Bridge and crushed a family picnicking in the park underneath the bridge.

Devastating stuff. I have watched this story of self-destruction play out repeatedly, and it needs to stop for the sake of the sailors, the public, and the girls (and boys) who are trafficked to support the licentious trades.

To the Navy’s credit, it has developed alternatives to curtail needless drunkenness abroad by offering tours and sporting opportunities come landfall. Instead of having the options of (a) bar and then strip club or (b) strip club and then bar, there are now opportunities to climb Mount Fuji in Japan, go snorkeling in the Philippines, and surf in Hawaii. For those budget hawks, fear not, for the tour funding comes from the sailors themselves, not from extra tax revenue. While this does nothing to curtail the drinking when in homeport, these activities are a welcome alternative to drunken stupor come landfall elsewhere in the world.

My suggestion for curbing the same at home would be random breathalyzer tests every morning upon arriving to work. The Navy already does this with urinalysis tests for drug consumption, so there should be no issue with testing servicemembers for inebriation, as they work on weapons systems and heavy equipment.

Won’t the civil liberties of the sailors be infringed? Bluntly put, servicemembers don’t get civil liberties except by military fiat; signing the contract is signing away one’s life to the country. We need to know the guy or gal working on the anti-ship missiles has his or her mental faculties operating at complete capacity. Captain Morgan need not be involved in jet maintenance.

There is also an understanding in the Navy that officers and the upper enlisted are allowed greater leniency for misconduct than a junior enlisted member could ever hope to be afforded. This unjust application of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) creates a needless fracture between the upper and lower ranks. To commanders, I would ask you to hold your people equally accountable because I promise the junior sailors will hear of, and grow embittered toward, the chain of command’s failings otherwise.

The military is a brutal and challenging life, and I certainly understand the desire for escapism. Yet, these pursuits are ultimately unhealthy and damaging to the readiness of military members and the ships upon which they serve, items of the highest priority.

I write this not as an indictment of those who man the ships and bases — they are my friends, my colleagues — but out of concern for the sailors, their families, and our country’s ability to make war with minimal loss of life. My gratitude to those who continue to serve at home and abroad.

Luther Ray Abel is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism and former NR intern, a graduate of Lawrence University, and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. He is a proud native of Sheboygan, Wis.