The reasons for the growing sexual assault problem in our military are complex and require serious investigation. Sexual assault is not confined to places and times when alcohol is consumed. But it has been known for years that alcohol abuse is a dominant factor in most military sexual assault cases. Most offenses occur in the barracks, most victims are junior enlisted personnel, and most perpetrators are their peers or noncommissioned officers. Nearly all recent high-profile cases of military sexual assault involved alcohol in some form.
It is painful to warn young soldiers, who understandably revere the brotherhood of arms, that that brotherhood ends when consuming alcohol begins. Civilians know about our fraternity from movies and history books, and in my experience all that is true. Soldiers will willingly die to protect each other, and this love rivals all other great passions. It is exhilarating to work toward meaningful goals, serving side by side with admirable people. My experience has also been that women are full and valued members of the team, whether deployed overseas or stationed at the Pentagon. But off-duty, when drinks are in hand, this can quickly change.
We must be honest with ourselves: Alcohol abuse strips away the brotherhood and incapacitates the better angels of human nature. After a few drinks with the guys, official lectures on mutual respect are forgotten by otherwise decent people.
In the U.S. military, young women and men are taught to completely trust their fellow soldiers, and rightly so. Yet our military culture also fosters off-duty association — where alcohol abuse is rampant. Even at many official events, robust alcohol consumption is encouraged.
More times than I can count, I have broken the hearts of new troops when I explain that they are not safe when their military brothers are drinking. The security and fellowship of the battlefield that they can expect and provide in turn may not extend past that first drink. The realization sinks in slowly, and we share a moment of quiet sadness.