Fort Drum Commander Outs Drunken Drivers

With drunken-driving offenses spiraling dangerously out-of-control at Fort Drum as soldiers return from Iraq, the base commander orders the post newspaper to publish the names and pictures of the arrested soldiers in what he calls an effort to shame troops into changing their dangerous habits.

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The commander of Fort Drum Army Base in upstate New York has taken an unusual step. There's been a rise in drunk-driving among soldiers there. He's ordered the post weekly newspaper to publish the names and pictures of soldiers arrested for DWI. That policy has touched off a debate over the best way to handle the misdeeds of Iraq veterans.

We have a report from David Sommerstein of North Country Public Radio.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: The Fort Drum Blizzard's front page usually touts the accomplishments of its soldiers overseas. But on March 6th, the headline read, we are better than this. Below it were the names and, when available, photos of 48 soldiers arrested for drunk-driving during the first two months of the year. Six pages of names and pictures.

Major General MICHAEL OATES (Commander, Fort Drum): I don't take the step lightly and I realized that there will be people that are offended by this.

SOMMERSTEIN: Major General Michael Oates is Fort Drum's commander. He says he's tried designated driver programs, dry social events, financial penalties, but nothing has worked.

Maj. Gen. OATES: I think I understand soldier culture well enough. I may not understand youngster culture well enough, but I think they probably would not be happy with this public recognition of their misconduct.

SOMMERSTEIN: New Yorkers were arrested for drunk-driving last year at a rate of three per 1,000 people. In the Army, the number's lower. But Fort Drum is on pace for 17 per 1,000 drunk-driving arrests this year. Just last weekend, a 23-year-old soldier injured seven pedestrians when he plowed into a crowd leaving a music club in nearby Watertown. The private was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He was charged with drunk-driving.

SOMMERSTEIN: Here is the latest edition of the Fort Drum Blizzard hot off the presses today.

Another eight soldiers' DWIs were made public last Thursday, this time on page four. Reaction has been mixed. Inside a military supply store just off post, Specialist Thomas Bull(ph) says the public shaming is too hard to live down.

Specialist THOMAS BULL (U.S. Army): The person who committed crimes shouldn't be publicized about it. He made a mistake and he should be able to go on without everybody else knowing about it.

SOMMERSTEIN: Several other soldiers here agree with Bull, but don't want to speak publicly because they're criticizing the order of the commanding officer. A member of Specialist John Washer's(ph) unit was arrested. Washer supports outing drunk drivers on the Blizzard's front page.

Specialist JOHN WASHER (U.S. Army): That's putting a shame on your unit because they're the ones training you to be disciplined.

SOMMERSTEIN: Washer and almost 4,000 other soldiers returned from Iraq last November. He says some soldiers just overdo it when they celebrate their homecoming. But he believes the echoes of combat may also play a role.

Specialist WASHER: Coming back from a war zone you're locked tight and always carrying a weapon, now all of a sudden you're just kind of let loose.

SOMMERSTEIN: It's this feeling of being left adrift with horrible memories that worries mental health professionals.

Ms. NELLIE COAKLEY (War Trauma Counselor; Vietnam Veteran): When a person comes home from a war zone, they may choose to try to medicate themselves with alcohol.

SOMMERSTEIN: Nellie Coakley is a Vietnam veteran and has been a war trauma counselor for 25 years. She says these soldiers need help coping with grief and nightmares; they don't need public disgrace.

Ms. COAKLEY: That does not help that soldier recover from the psychological destruction that they're already experiencing.

SOMMERSTEIN: Major General Oates doesn't discount illnesses like PTSD as a factor. But he says it's no excuse for drinking and driving either.

Maj. Gen. OATES: If somebody came back from a deployment and their marriage was wrecked or their finances were a disaster or any other, they had combat stress, would they be more prone to use alcohol or drugs? I think you could make that case. All I can tell you is that we won't tolerate it regardless.

SOMMERSTEIN: Army officials say Fort Drum is the only installation in the country to take this step. Oates says he'll continue it until he sees the drunk-driving subside.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in northern New York.

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