NORFOLK, Va. -- The Navy says it will conduct random blood-alcohol tests on its sailors in the United States starting next month, a sign of how concerned the services leaders have become about the effects alcohol abuse is having on the force.
The tests are part of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative, an expansive program intended to improve the well-being of sailors and Marines after more than a decade at war.
The Marines announced it would carry out its own random alcohol tests last month. While alcohol has long played a part in the Navys culture, Navy officials stressed they arent trying to stop sailors from drinking altogether, but are concerned about their health and safety.
The Navy said it will use the blood-alcohol tests to determine whether someone is fit for duty or may need counseling. Any sailor whose blood-alcohol level is .04 or higher when reporting for duty wont be allowed to work. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, a driver with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol is considered drunk.
A positive test result for a sailor reporting to work a reading of 0.02 percent or higher wont be used to punish sailors. But the Navy said it could be used to refer him or her to a drug and alcohol program adviser.
Sailors and their commanders at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba, will also be subjected to the tests.
Both officer and enlisted at GTMO will be tested using the alcohol detection devices, Navy Cmdr. Brenda Malone told The Miami Herald from Navy headquarters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
GTMO is the Defense Department acronym for the remote base that is run by a Navy captain and also houses the detention center run by a Navy admiral. About 6,000 people live there, about a third of them American service members.
Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations, said the random tests could help spot sailors who need support before an incident occurs due to the irresponsible use of alcohol. He also wrote in a message outlining the new details of the policy to the fleet that the tests will serve as a safety measure and raise awareness among commanding officers of a crews culture of alcohol use.
Alcohol is of particular concern because of the role it frequently plays in other destructive behaviors such as suicide and sexual assault. Alcohol also has played a factor in the dismissals of a number of commanding officers in recent years.
Deterring irresponsible use of alcohol is essential to the readiness of our fleet and ensuring the health and safety of our service members and units, Adm. Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces, said in a statement.
Alcohol is widely available at Guantánamo, where the officers club is a bar called Ricks, and anyone else is welcome at an Irish Pub called OKellys. Alcohol is also on sale at the base commissary, shipped in by barge from Jacksonville, Fla., and at an open-air Tiki Bar.
The base just months ago banned kiosk sales of $1 beers at the open-air theater, the Lyceum, where troops, contractors and their families watch free films nightly. Troops there said commanders advised them management had concluded that alcohol contributed to a rowdy movie-watching atmosphere.
Soldiers and sailors on rotations on and off the base for prison camp duty are also at times forbidden from drinking.
In a pilot program with 13 commands this past summer, nearly 7,500 sailors were subjected to random alcohol tests. Of those, 87 tested positive for alcohol.
The test verified that the majority of our service members, who choose to drink alcohol, do so responsibly. It also verified that our commanding officers need a flexible program that serves to increase the Navys awareness about the impacts of alcohol, Gortney said in a statement.
By May 24, the Navy expects to have hand-held alcohol detection devices available for nearly 2,000 commands.
The 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative was unveiled by Mabus in a rare `all-hands call aboard a ship in Norfolk last March that was broadcast to sailors around the world. Among other things, it also focuses on preventing suicides, sexual assaults and increasing physical fitness. The Navy has also begun conducting random urine tests for synthetic drug use under the initiative.
Unlike the alcohol tests, those who test positive for synthetic drug use are subject to punishment.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.