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Some question Navy's motives for breath test

Jan. 28, 2013 - 08:57AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 28, 2013 - 08:57AM  |  
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) Airman Tess Fonger takes a breathalyzer test aboard the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. The carrier was among 13 commands selected as beta test platforms for the Navy's breathalyzer program.
Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) Airman Tess Fonger takes a breathalyzer test aboard the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. The carrier was among 13 commands selected as beta test platforms for the Navy's breathalyzer program. (MC2 Tony D. Curtis / Navy)
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What many sailors can't get their heads around is the fact the Navy has repeatedly called its new alcohol-testing program "nonpunitive."

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What many sailors can't get their heads around is the fact the Navy has repeatedly called its new alcohol-testing program "nonpunitive."

This means that unlike the Navy's urinalysis testing for drugs, a positive test can't, in and of itself, get you in trouble. It could, however, lead to additional counseling. And, in cases of blood-alcohol results of 0.04-and-higher, the nonpunitive test could be probable cause for further investigation — and discipline.

And what if positive tests keep occurring and education isn't enough? And who is to stop a commander from remembering the test findings when evals roll around, even if he can't explicitly state you tested positive? Sailors expressed these and other concerns in writing Navy Times after the policy was announced.

A commander of one of the breath-test pilot units, Capt. Michael Ott, said his sailors, too, initially were distrustful of the Navy's intent.

"[It] appeared to our sailors that initially, we were questioning their integrity, their dedication," he said.

Ott said that distrust went away once his command started executing the policy.

"After that first weekend, sailors understood that I blew in it, and it wasn't an issue. It just became a part of walking through the quarterdeck — a nonissue," he said. "And sailors also saw that when they tested positive, there wasn't some immediate turn around and they were going to captain's mast that day. They saw the command handle it in a mature fashion."

But some sailors still believe otherwise.

"People are still going to be punished," wrote one first-class master-at-arms who asked to remain anonymous, fearing backlash from his command. "What happens if the same person gets a positive result more than once? Is it still an educational purpose on the 10th time? Where is the line drawn?"

Another sailor, who also wished to be anonymous, said the program is another example of how the military is treating adults as children. Others cited this type of program as a reason to leave service.

But some are already buying into the policy, saying it's just part of serving.

"How can this be anything but a positive step?" wrote Damage Controlman 1st Class (SW) Clyde Harrison, a firefighting instructor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"If you're worried about a breathalyzer upon showing up to work, then you picked the wrong career — fear and concern comes from those who circumvent the rules and endanger lives. Our job, our mission comes before all else. This we have sworn with our lives."

Ott said the Navy benefits by making it nonpunitive, in making sure that its sailors who need it get help.

It didn't have to happen that way, Ott said. And he insists this isn't yet another "force-shaping" tool designed to put sailors out of the Navy.

"I think that the Navy would be well within its rights to roll a policy out similar to our urinalysis program," he said. "But that's not what this is about."

It boils down to the fact that responsible alcohol use is legal. But coming to work under the influence isn't.

The Navy wants to change the behavior of those who, for some reason, are drinking to excess and drinking too close to when they need to report to work.

And at his command, Ott believes behavior did change.

"The fact that our sailors knew we were part of this test program, this pilot program definitely impacted my sailors' behavior in a positive way," he said.

According to the statistics from the pilot program last year, released by Fleet Forces Command, of 7,496 random tests across 13 sea and shore commands, only 87 produced a positive result of 0.02 percent alcohol or above.

Though he didn't have statistics for his unit, Ott said he believes the specter of random testing was enough to get his sailors curbing their drinking long before they got to work.

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