NORFOLK, Va. — In 1913, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels issued a revolutionary order: no more alcohol on board ships. According to official Navy myth, sober sailors mocked their boss by nicknaming their coffee — the strongest drink still allowed on board — a “cup of Joe.”
A century later, current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is one-upping Daniels, ordering the installation of breath-test machines on all ships and submarines, as well as on Marine Corps bases. One can only imagine how he will go down in naval lore.
According to Mabus, the breath tests are not intended as a crackdown measure but rather to help identify sailors who might be struggling with booze. The alcohol testing is part of a broader new Navy program designed to improve the physical and mental well-being of those having difficulty coping with the stresses of a decade of war.
“We are not telling you not to drink, if you are old enough,” Mabus told an audience of sailors and Marines Monday afternoon aboard the USS Bataan at Naval Station Norfolk. “We are telling you that it is important to keep legal, responsible use of alcohol from turning into a problem.”
The problem generally is not that sailors are showing up blitzed to work, Mabus said in an interview. It’s that alcohol is surfacing as a factor in a host of social and professional ills that are increasingly of concern to the Navy brass: sexual assault, domestic problems, suicide, even poor physical fitness.
Mabus said the Navy has a bunch of separate programs to address each of those problems, but decided that it needed to take a more comprehensive approach. “We’ve done a lot of good and pretty effective things, but they’ve been piecemeal,” he said.
By detecting those who show up to work with a drink or two still in their system — especially on more than one occasion — the Navy will be able to intervene and offer counseling before things escalate, he said.
All ranks are vulnerable, Mabus said. He noted that 13 of 20 commanding officers recently fired by the Navy admitted afterward that drinking was a contributing factor to their problems.
The Navy will take other measures to reduce or prevent unhealthy behavior. It will stop subsidizing cigarette sales on bases and increase smoking cessation programs, following a complete ban on smoking aboard submarines that took effect last year.
The Navy will also begin random testing for synthetic marijuana, known as Spice. (The service already has random testing for other drugs.)
But the biggest, and most visible change, will be the breath tests. Navy officials said between one-sixth and one-eighth of those reporting for duty on board will be automatically tested at any given time, though others will still face random testing.
The Navy already has breath-test machines on board submarines in the Pacific Northwest as part of a pilot program that is being expanded across the force.
Mabus made his announcement aboard the Bataan, an amphibious assault ship that returned last month after 322 days at sea — the longest deployment of any Navy ship in four decades.
In remarks to sailors, he acknowledged that the Navy and Marine Corps have already been stretched thin over the last 10 years. But he said the workload wouldn’t lighten up anytime soon. The U.S. military recently adopted a new strategy that will emphasize operations in Asia and the Pacific, a region where the Navy will play a predominant role.