The Navy said Wednesday it will conduct random blood-alcohol tests on its sailors in the United States starting next month, a sign of how concerned the service's 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 Navy's culture, Navy officials stressed they aren't 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 won't 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 - won't 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.
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 crew's "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.
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 Navy's awareness about the impacts of alcohol," Gortney said in a statement.
With more than 28,000 Navy servicemen and women stationed at NAS Jax, Mayport and Kings Bay, there's been some resistance to the new policy, according to retired Navy Admiral Bob Natter.
"We take them into the military, we say, 'You're now adults,' we expect them to act like adults, and then we start treating them in ways that you wouldn't expect an adult to be treated. So this is a tough, tough call," said Natter.
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.
Natter said he hopes officials will approach it with sensitivity as the Navy implements the policy.
"If they're not operating an automobile, if they're not operating machinery, if they're not operating their weapons right away, then I would say leeway is appropriate," said Natter.
Unlike the alcohol tests, those who test positive for synthetic drug use are subject to punishment.