By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
The Army has a long history with alcohol and the mentality amongst today’s Soldiers still includes regular alcohol consumption at unit sponsored events. Ironically leaders aggressively punish Soldiers that abuse alcohol, or drive under the influence, but will encourage members of their command to drink to excess during social gatherings.
Army leaders need to look deeper at how their portrayal of alcohol might be a greater contributor to Soldiers drinking to excess. Potential actions commanders should consider when planning unit sponsored social events are:
- Remove traditions that contribute to excess alcohol consumption.
- Select venues for unit functions that do not only serve alcohol.
- Stop celebrating Soldiers that show up to physical training (PT) hungover.
Remove Traditions That Contribute to Excess Alcohol Consumption
Throughout my career as an infantry officer alcohol and military social events have always gone hand in hand. My first formal introduction to drinking in the Army was as a cadet on the night I learned I was assigned to the infantry. After opening an envelope that revealed my branch insignia my peers and I were offered what seemed like a never-ending supply of beer provided by senior leaders who congratulated us on our future career and reveled us with war stories. From that point I linked military celebrations with alcohol, a trend I continued to witness at my units as a lieutenant and captain.
Hails and Farewells are common events for the senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and officers in a battalion. Battalion Commanders and Command Sergeants Major (CSM) welcome the new arrivals while departing leaders are recognized with a unit plaque and words of praise for their contributions. There is generally always alcohol, and, in some units, I witnessed the tradition where junior officers had the responsibility to keep the glasses of the senior commanders constantly full. The message that Army leaders are expected to drink was again reinforced in my mind.
Another example I observed in a cavalry unit surrounds the wear of the traditional Stetson headgear. Before a new cavalryman can don the Stetson, their hat must be, “wetted.” Naturally, units create a historical linkage to cavalrymen of the past who would give their horse water by filling their hat from a stream, but now it’s an opportunity to see young officers spill booze on themselves while they drink beer from their Stetsons as senior leaders look on and jeer. An even more gratuitous ceremonial consumption of alcohol occurs during military balls, or dining-ins, during the grog ceremony.
The grog ceremony is a part of the formal events of most military balls typically held at the battalion level or higher. During the ceremony the grog is concocted from various alcohols, and some other creative additives, each with a significance to the lineage of the organization. The longer the campaign history of a particular unit the more forms of alcohol will be added to the grog bowl. Finally, after the last ingredient has been added the youngest Soldier present will be called upon to sample the mixture to ensure that it is, “fit for consumption.” Once the Senior Leader is satisfied with its potency each table fills up their pitchers.
I participated in these events throughout my career, and enjoyed myself, but it was clear in some organizations that drinking was prioritized more than recognizing the accomplishments of the organization and its Soldiers. Regrettably as a more senior member of the organization I encouraged these because I had witnessed, or took part in them, when I was a junior officer. Even if I wasn’t the one putting drinks in junior lieutenants’ hands I smiled and laughed when they chugged beers with amusement knowing that I had once been in their shoes.
It’s a fine balance for commanders when considering whether to permit alcohol at unit functions. If they exclude alcohol, then attendance will likely plummet along with morale. Alternatively, allow too permissive of an environment, and the group gets sloppy and unsavory outcomes occur like assault and misconduct. Personally, I believe alcohol should be allowed because Soldiers want to drink with their peers off-duty, but leaders should cut out traditions that force a Soldier to drink large amounts rapidly. It just reinforces that they must drink to be accepted, which could contribute to counterproductive behaviors like hazing.
Select Venues That Do Not Only Serve Alcohol
As a battalion executive officer (XO) the junior officer planning unit social events would brief me on their plan and list of venue options. Once after an action officer and his company commander departed the command suite my CSM, who had been listening to the brief, questioned me about the venue I endorsed. He told me that he was not interested in attending the event because of the location I picked.
I was confused to why he, the senior enlisted leader in the unit, would not attend an official unit function. The problem he told me was that there was no food served at that location, it was just a brewery where the only non-alcoholic menu options were bags of chips.
While breweries and pubs are common locations to book unit functions, they send a message to the formation that drinking will be the primary focus and may alienate Soldiers in the formation who do not drink. Another senior leader who was a recovering alcoholic also expressed to me that he was reluctant to come to unit functions because it was not enjoyable when there were no other activities but drinking.
I saw my error and ensured there was food and non-alcoholic beverages on site. With only beer available people could very easily over indulge without food consumption to offset the drinks. As an organizational leader I had to set the tone for the unit functions to ensure the junior officers planning the event didn’t mistake it for a college frat party.
Stop Celebrating Soldiers that Show up to Physical Training (PT) Hungover
Interestingly it was not a moral epiphany that caused me to relook my outlook on overconsumption of alcohol, it was my smartwatch. Smartwatches and fitness trackers have been commonplace for the last decade. Since the Army is naturally comprised of competitive people comparing steps and closing activity rings faster than peers became common workplace banter. My sleep score though became my most valued statistic.
Without doing a deep dive into the science and validity of using wearables to determine someone’s physical preparedness I will just say my biggest takeaway was the even a single drink of alcohol would negatively impact my recovery. Nights I drank my resting heart rate was on average 4-6 beats per minute higher, which generally left me feeling less rested the next day. The more drinks I had in a day the worse my metrics were. This trend was consistent enough for me to realize that I was not at my best the days after I drank.
This is not a new revelation for athletes. The modern professional athlete has a team of coaches and trainers that monitor every measurable metric to ensure their nutrition, recovery and training are dialed in for peak performance during competition. The margins for victory are so slim that an Olympic athlete will rarely consume alcohol when they are in-season to avoid having a bad training day.
It’s a fallacy for Army leaders to implement programs aimed to treat Soldiers as semi-professional athletes when they look the other way when someone shows up reeking of alcohol.
To shift unit culture leaders need to ensure consistent, hard, PT is done daily, and to never applaud the hungover Soldier who shows up to work. For many Soldiers completing a PT session after binging alcohol the night before, or into the early morning is a badge of honor, but unit PT should be more than receiving attendance credit.
Showing Soldiers their performance markers might help illustrate the impact alcohol has on their readiness to train. Units can use benchmark workouts to show how performance drops when Soldiers are not at their peak, which could be related to their alcohol usage.
Soldiers and families need to feel connected to Army units, and a great way to do that is through regular social events. Commanders who prohibit drinking at unit functions will have challenges setting an effective command climate, but so will the leaders that promote traditions that may alienate a portion of their formation. With the risk of sounding un-Soldierly I realize now that I could still demonstrate toughness in front of my troops without pounding beers and becoming, “that guy,” at the unit ball or social event.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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