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Should Underage Soldiers Be Allowed to Drink Alcohol?

A recent effort to allow young troops to drink in North Dakota just fell flat, but there are still advocates who wonder why 18-year-olds can die for their country but can't buy a beer.

Justin Glawe

Photo via Flickr user Presidio of Monterey

It took 47 minutes and four seconds of official North Dakota House Judiciary Committee time to decide that underage members of the military shouldn't be allowed to drink alcohol on base, or anywhere else for that matter.

Quentin Wangler is surely pissed.

A few years ago at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Wangler was eating at Applebee's when he encountered a group of military men and women waiting for a plane to take them to Afghanistan. Wangler, being the appreciative North Dakotan that he is, decided he'd like to buy them a beer to thank them for their service.

"I'm sorry, sir, we appreciate that," the soldiers told Wangler, according to his official testimony in support of the bill at the committee's hearing in Bismarck last Monday. "But I'm only 20 years old and I'm not allowed to have a beer."

"And I sat back and I said, 'There's absolutely something wrong with this scenario,'" Wangler said after House Bill 1225 was introduced.

The bill was sponsored by Andrew Maragos, a Republican from Minot, after Wangler brought the issue to his attention. I spoke to Maragos over the phone, who consistently pointed to Wangler as the driving force behind the effort to make it legal for young soldiers to get sloshed.

"I would not have brought that issue by myself," he told me, arguing that if the situation Wangler recalled in Texas had occurred when Maragos was serving in Vietnam, there would have been an uproar.

Maragos isn't the only legislator who's fight for the right of troops of all ages to imbibe. In 2011, a Georgia lawmaker took the issue straight to the top. In a hearing on Capitol Hill, US Representative Jack Kingston told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that it "greatly disturbs" the congressman that troops under the age of 21 can't join their peers in enjoying alcohol, in the process summing up the case against America's drinking age being so high.

"You can buy a house. You can go to jail. You can get married. You can go to Afghanistan and Iraq and kill somebody. But when you come back, you can't have a drink in a bar. You can't buy beer," Kingston said.

Maragos's thinking was also in line with that of the higher-ups at Fort Bliss in Texas. There, underage service members were allowed to drink on base until 2008, when the practice was banned under new leadership in a decision that cited car crashes, arrests, and fights.

"I just made it so that if a commanding officer thought it was in the best interest of morale and unit cohesion, that he could allow service members to enjoy libations, but only on the base," Maragos said of the original bill, which was amended at Wangler's suggestion to support drinking at all establishments in the state.

"That was just too big of a leap," Maragos admitted.

Wangler didn't think so.

"When it comes time for their vote, they're responsible," he told the committee, offering up what many of us can agree is a something of a glaring contradiction between soliciting votes from members of the military but not allowing them to drink. "When it comes time for them to walk into a bar and buy a beer, all of a sudden they are not responsible."

Wangler argued that members of the military are "the most responsible young people on the face of the earth."

Never mind that bit of hyperbole and you're faced with some hard truths that prevented this bill from getting off the ground. (It was tagged with a "do-not-pass" recommendation in a 10-3 vote the same day it was introduced, and formally killed by the House on Friday.) First, there's the issue of constitutionality: You can't exempt a group of people from laws for sentimental reasons, even if they are fighting (or about to fight) in a war.

"I'm just wondering—if you single out a group like this—whether you would thereby be violating the United States and North Dakota constitutions dealing with equal rights," Lawrence Klemin, a Republican from Bismarck, pointed out at the hearing.

Beyond that, there are arguably some safety issues raised by letting anyone over the age of 18 who wears a uniform get hammered. Wangler, in his comments to the committee, brushed those concerns aside.

"You can go online and find ten studies that say traffic fatalities go up when you lower [the drinking age]. If I went online I'd probably find 12 studies that say it doesn't have any effect on traffic fatalities," he told the committee. "That's not the point. Remember the people that we're talking about. These are 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old responsible young men and women who are serving in our military."

Their service may make them more responsible in the eyes of Wangler, but a study released by the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) in 2012 paints a problematic picture of alcohol use in North Dakota.

"Compared to the nation and other US states, alcohol use and abuse is the biggest substance-related problem that faces the state," the study's authors wrote. "North Dakota ranks near the bottom among US states regarding the percentage of persons who perceive great harm associated with consuming five or more drinks at a time once or twice a week. This finding assists in understanding why binge drinking rates are so high in North Dakota: Many perceive little or no physical, mental, or societal harm associated with this behavior."

Maragos argues that North Dakota's harsh climate is partly to blame for what he called a "high percentage" of alcohol abuse.

"We're a small state with not a lot to do in the wintertime, so maybe that's why we think about it a little differently," he told me.

Pam Sagness of the state health department noted that veterans in particular are having problems with alcohol.

"We see a higher proportion of veterans that are seeking services for alcohol versus other substances or drugs," she said in sober tone at the bill's hearing.

That's in line with national trends, which since 2008 have shown slightly increased rates of alcohol use and abuse among veterans, especially those returning from combat zones. The New York Times, in a 2008 piece on former soldiers with drinking problems, summed it up this way:

Increasingly, these troubled veterans are spilling into the criminal justice system. A small fraction wind up in prison for homicides or other major crimes. Far more, though, are involved in drunken bar fights, reckless driving and alcohol-fueled domestic violence. Whatever the particulars, their stories often spool out in unwitting victims, ruptured families, lost jobs and crushing debt.

Wangler did not seem to be concerned with the gravity of the issues brought up by Sagness and Connie Sprynczynatyk of the North Dakota Cares Coalition, which serves the state's 57,000 veterans and focuses on behavioral health.

"I would suggest that, although [this bill] is well intentioned, there may be other significant ways that we honor the service and sacrifice of all of those people who sign up for military service in the state of North Dakota," Sprynczynatyk said at the hearing before the bill went down.

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