Op-Ed: Let Soldiers Drink Beer

Reports raise concern about rising rates of alcohol abuse among soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Krohn argues that with soldiers sacrificing so much, a case of beer actually helps keep morale up.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, we turn to the TALK OF THE NATION weekly Opinion Page and more beer politics. Not the president, the policeman and the professor this time, but U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, both Islamic countries where, under General Order 1B, the possession, use and consumption of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. Even so, rates of alcohol abuse are rising there, and many connect that to the rising number of soldier suicides as well. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn has fond memories of the daily beer rations he and his men received during the Vietnam War. He wrote an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post titled, "Let the Soldiers Drink."

If you've served in the military, how important was the beer ration to you? Does it make things better or worse? 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn joins us here in Studio 3A. Good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. CHARLES KROHN (Retired Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you wrote in that piece it was always a blessing at the end of the day to see that last helicopter come in, carrying a sling full of beer.

Mr. KROHN: Well, that's right. And the point is that the atmospherics change when guys sit down and, you know, have a beer together, or two. The amount of alcohol is really negligible, but it changes the atmospherics. And of course, I think - President Obama made it - made that point elegantly on his beer summit. The idea was that there was, you know, some issues in Cambridge, so he invited the professor and the policeman to come and have a beer at the White House and kind of relax. And I think that that's exactly the way you do it.

And we no longer serve beer or any alcohol to service members in Afghanistan or Iraq. And I'm saying that these guys and gals are putting their life on the line. They're working under extremely arduous conditions. And at the end of the day, it would be good for them, and good for everybody else, if they could just sit back and relax and have a beer or two, and reminisce and think about things at home, and get their minds off the war. That was the whole point of my op-ed piece.

CONAN: But you've also been to Iraq in your second life, and these are Islamic countries. It's not the same as Vietnam.

Mr. KROHN: Well, I don't visualize drinking a beer walking down the main street of Baghdad, either. I mean, this is something that would be done in some kind of an assembly area out of public site.

CONAN: So as to not offend local sensibilities.

Mr. KROHN: Yeah. And it's not the kind of thing - you know, it's hard to relax when you're in public view in any event. And, again, the event in the White House wasn't in public view, really, except for the photo op, so...

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. We want to hear from those of you who've been in uniform about the beer ration.

Richard(ph) is calling from Goldsboro, North Carolina.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

RICHARD: Yeah. It was actually quite welcome for me. And the friends that I've made over there when I was in Iraq - well, actually, in Balad - it was very welcome. It was kind of a sane thing in an insane world. It was something that we did almost religiously, you know, when we had the time, when we weren't working the very next day, you know what I'm saying? It was - it was quite welcome. I think it's definitely a benefit, a real benefit, because, and again, with anything you take it in moderation…

CONAN: Sure.

RICHARD: It was time, basically, to relax. It was - to decompress, to basically get your mind off of, well, what we had to do.

CONAN: And you did that despite the order prohibiting it?

RICHARD: No. See, we weren't - I mean, when we were on base…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RICHARD: We did it on base. And it was - when we were rationed beer -beer rationed, we were allowed to have so much. And we did just that. We, you know, we respected the limits that we had to have, you know, that we were given. And usually for us, it was usually on a Friday, you know? And it was quite a stress reliever and it wasn't prohibited. I mean, of course we couldn't - at that time, we couldn't leave the base. We were on lockdown. But it was, you know, it was something very much looked forward to, because it was a social thing as well as basically just - it wasn't just about getting drunk, you know what I'm saying?

CONAN: Yeah. No, I understand that and a couple of beers - you have to you have a vivid imagination to get drunk on it. But Colonel, what do you think?

Mr. KROHN: Was it near beer or the real thing?

RICHARD: It was the real thing. I mean, we had - for me, like, I was a Jim Beam person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARD: But it was - I also enjoyed beer. And it was - it wasn't the simulated alcohol. That's what we liked to call it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Richard. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

RICHARD: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. And I'm a little puzzled about the interpretation of the regulations there, but nevertheless.

Mr. KROHN: Yeah. Me, too.

CONAN: His point though, which you were trying to make as well, that it does serve a social function, it does serve a - soldiers an opportunity to sit back for a moment and relax.

Mr. KROHN: So Richard, the president and I are in the same booth on that one.

CONAN: Here are some emails we've got. I arrived in Iraq with the Army from 2003, 2005. I happened to be on a Marine Corps base on the Marine Corps birthday. Each Marine got two beers as they went through the chow hall, us Army guys got none.

Mr. KROHN: Well, I've heard stories that General Petraeus arranged for two beers per soldier the night of the Super Bowl. So there may be exceptions to kind one at a time, but generally speaking, in all the soldiers I have met and spoke to there and here, there was no alcohol at all, so.

CONAN: Here's Michael(ph). Michael with us from Minneapolis.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: I'm just going to tell a story. I was in the First Gulf War and part of the XVIII Airborne Corps, and we had heard a rumor about a secret bar in Riyadh. And a friend and I went out all night in taxis trying to track this place down. And...

CONAN: In Riyadh - it's a sort of secular capital of Saudi Arabia, yes.

MICHAEL: Yeah. And we finally found this secret bar at the British Aviation Aerospace compound, and I think it was bungalow 13. And it was homemade ale and some smuggled gin. And we were the only soldiers there. And the Brits made us get up on this little stage they had made up and do a limerick, which I made a rhyme, a rap to get our free liquor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: So we found it, and we were heroes to our unit.

Mr. KROHN: Well, the Brits seem to take a different approach to this whole matter than we do, and I don't know if it affects their combat effectiveness adversely or not.

CONAN: I think the rum ration in the British navy no longer exists.

Mr. KROHN: Well, that's kind of my motto, you know? Beer for the boys at the front and grog for the girls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. Good story.

My parents - we lived in Saudi Arabia when I was very little - I didn't know about this, but they told stories of making bathtub gin in Dhahran -in the American compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Anyway, let's see if we can go next to John(ph), John with us from Iowa City.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. My message is basic. I got a cousin that's served three times in Afghanistan. And I just feel like the soldiers should have the choice, and that's basically my comment. But it should be monitored so that nobody get's hurt.

CONAN: So that nobody gets hurt, obviously these are - yeah. There's also - here's an email from Mary Ann(ph) in Wichita.

As an eight-year veteran in the Navy, I am of the opinion the military cannot handle the consequences of allowing military members to drink. In my experience, the culture of the Navy was that it created alcoholics and then punished them once they had a problem. I say find healthier outlets for military members to relax and decompress.

Mr. KROHN: Well, again, I kind of take the view of the soldier - most of them I've known and served with - and they kind of enjoy a beer break at the end of the day. Alcoholism is a separate problem. And I think that there is binge drinking. Perhaps that's caused by not being allowed to drink for 12 months at a stretch, and coming home and trying to accomplish in one evening what you missed for 365. But I agree that people should not be forced to drink beer, that there should be optional beverages for those who want it. And it should be monitored, and that's my position.

CONAN:: John, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next to - this is John(ph). John with us from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, John.

JOHN: I just wanted to throw a quick comment. You had an email a moment ago about the beer at the Marine Corps birthday. I always - I am a Marine and was in Camp Fallujah with the Marine Corps in - from October of '04 through March of '05. And General Sadler, who was the commander of the Marine forces, arranged for us to have a couple of beers and also a serving of rum punch, which is a traditional drink for the Marine Corps birthday on that event. Now, we had to celebrate it in December, as it turns out, because the 10th of November, which is the Marine Corps birthday, fell three days after the commencement of Operation Phantom Fury, which came to be known as Al-Fajr - which was the second fight in Fallujah in that year, so...

CONAN: And very difficult times, indeed.

JOHN: Yes. But they held the ration for us and when the operational tempo settled down a little bit and it seemed appropriate, we got to go to the chow hall. And I don't remember that other service members, non-Marines, were excluded from that event because it was a very joint environment, and I believe that everybody was included on that.

CONAN: And the rum testifying to the nautical traditions of the Marine Corps as well.

JOHN: Exactly.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

Mr. KROHN: High marks to the Marine Corps.

CONAN: We're talking with retired Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn who is - wrote an article - wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Let the Soldiers Drink." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Max(ph). Are troops being disciplined for smuggling in booze or making their own? At what kind of rate? Everybody knows prohibition is a fool's errand. If you can't keep booze out of prisons, why even try to keep it out of the Army?

Mr. KROHN: You know, I'm not aware of the manufacture of booze. I think creative and inventive people are capable of doing that. And some things will find a way, like putting healthy young men and healthy young girls close together.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KROHN: Things are going to happen.

CONAN: We mentioned the cultural and religious prohibition against alcohol in Islamic countries. Here's an email from John(ph): Do they serve pork to the soldiers? Obviously there's a prohibition against serving pork in Islamic countries, too.

Mr. KROHN: Best of my knowledge, yes. I don't recall any prohibition against pork or any of the other - or seafood or shellfish or other things. You know, this was all served on the American base. Now, there is a cultural-sensitive Meal Ready to Eat. If you're working with Islamics, they would not eat the conventional American ration. They would eat the, you know, the one adjusted to their diet but…

CONAN: Email from Craco(ph) in Chicago: Comment: In the Army Reserves, since when is alcohol and M16-toting soldiers a good combination? Half the deaths in the war are from friendly fire.

Mr. KROHN: Again, the - my view is that two beers at the end of the day, when things are winding down, do not interfere with combat operations. Of course, there's no room in the battlefield for drunken soldiers or soldiers under the influence. But no one is suggesting that the president became incapacitated at the beer summit nor the vice president nor professor Gates and…

CONAN: Hmm. Not the place…

Mr. KROHN: So, I mean, I see his point but I don't - I'm not really trying to address that.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dan(ph): I returned from a year in Afghanistan on May 3, '09. I agree with the op-ed author. Alcohol use should be limited and closely monitored, probably two-thirds per day -I'm not sure what that means - as two to three per day, that may be it. Of course, any more than that just doesn't mix with carrying weapons. For the entire year, I did not drink, nor know of anyone who did this past year, outside other nation's military members. In Afghanistan, we did not get beer for the Super Bowl.

Mr. KROHN: Well, this just attests to the, in my judgment, of the dedication of the American soldier and service members serving overseas. They are doing very, very well by our nation, and I'm just trying to make their life a little easier.

CONAN: Let's go to Don(ph). Don, calling from Salt Lake City.

DON (Caller): How you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead please, Don.

DON: Okay. So, while I agree with the colonel that alcohol isn't going to - like two beers isn't going to affect tactical proficiency of the soldier, you got to question how many guys died in Vietnam because they were drunk.

CONAN: Well, two beers is different…

DON: Occasionally it's not - I don't believe it's a Muslim, like, it's Muslim sensitivity prohibiting alcohol because there are Iraqi liquor stores. I'm - plenty of my friends got their liquor in Iraq from the Iraqis. The problem is, it's American officers covering their own rears, so to speak, by instigating these policies that will keep soldiers out of trouble, quote, unquote.

CONAN: Alcohol sales have always been allowed in Iraq but…

Mr. KROHN: Well, I was a civilian there, and I got my booze at the Baghdad International Airport, where civilians were allowed to buy booze. You're quite right. In the Sunni areas, there were liquor stores. In the Shia areas, they tend to be a little scarcer. So there are some sensitivities there. And while you're on the subject, I think that officers need a beer or two at the end of the day. Our people tend to be working very, very hard, long hours.

Life in a combat zone is very difficult for the senior people as well -doing their planning, their rehearsals, the logistics of the whole thing. And I think that there's probably not enough time that they set aside just to mingle with each other on a social basis, and get to know each other one on one.

DON: Agreed.

CONAN: Don, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

DON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bob(ph), who says he was in the USAF 1978 to 1988: There was an NCO club in Dhahran during the 1980s. When I served, it was members-only, closely guarded and off the record, so to speak, like the sale of bacon in the commissary. The Saudi Arabian hosts turned a blind eye.

And this from Vicky(ph). This is - I don't know how fond your guest's memories would be if he ever attended an AA meeting full of veterans. My experience with the military as a wife was that it taught folks how to drink better than any other institution on earth. Our government should not be supplying alcohol with a wink and a nod, especially if it offends local customs.

So, again, I think that that's beyond the scope of what you were just talking about.

Mr. KROHN: Yeah, I'm not talking about the issue of alcoholism, which is an entirely different subject. And I draw a line between two beers a day and a trend that leads towards alcoholism.

CONAN: Anyway, Colonel, nice of you to be with us today. Appreciate your time.

Mr. KROHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Charles Krohn served in Vietnam, now deputy director of public affairs for the American Battle Monuments Commission. We posted a link to his op-ed at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.