Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hide Your Booze

Whenever there is threat of snowstorm, ice storm, tornadoes, hurricanes, or any of a number of weather anomalies, I have found that locals all rush to the grocery store and create riots on the bread and milk sections trying to stock up on essentials. I equate it with the same absurdity that a woman in labor will always send a gaggle of others away to boil water. I get the impression it’s just something that you do when there’s a baby being born. Boil water.

My Marine counterparts, however, always approached it from a different perspective. After enduring literally hours of briefs, emergency plans, and activating a small contingent of troops to stand by with humvees, weapons, and fresh water, everybody, as in the civilian world, flocks to the local grocery store or PX. But their purchases are not what one might consider to be appropriate to the threat of calamity. They buy all the beer and liquor they can find. A pre-hurricane civilian grocery store will have an empty bread aisle. A pre-hurricane PX will have a full bread aisle, and not a drop of beer.

Perhaps this is a function of youth – that no natural disaster will be sufficient to cause long-term problems or harm anybody, so it is best to “celebrate” the event by drinking. The only time I can recall seeing such behavior in the civilian world is after Hurricane Katrina: rednecks floating around on inflatable mattresses with a wide assortment of alcohol to help keep them entertained/warm/well fed. Sure.

The result of Marines buying alcohol during base shutdowns on account of potential weather anomalies is rather unfortunate. In the end, they only contribute to the problem – by creating near-riot conditions in the barracks.

During one such lockdown on base, as the weather worsened, the wind picked up and the rain fell harder, orders came down the line that we were forbidden to leave our rooms without wearing a helmet and ballistic goggles. While such a command is fairly intended to keep Marines from being struck with flying objects, it was quickly reduced to use as a crash helmet and hard hat to prevent beer bottles from knocking them flat.

Within a matter of hours, Marines were running around outside with their ponchos – using them as sails and parachutes, jumping from the higher decks, and letting the wind soften their fall. Others preferred to hunch down in large, Rubbermaid tubs and let their windsail/poncho drag them across the field – made all the more hilarious by their sporting a helmet and goggles.

A few couldn’t open their doors on account of the floor being so littered with beer bottles and cans. One room, if I recall correctly, consumed over four cases in a matter of 24 hours. Only two or three people typically occupy a room, by the way.

As the antics outside continued, so did the crowd of onlookers, eventually resulting in well over a hundred young, bored Marines in helmets and goggles lining the rails, cradling beer, and cheering on the idiots slipping around in the mud. Naturally, this egged them on even further, until a few were taking running swan dives into flooded sections of the field. Nobody was hurt, to my knowledge. Perhaps because they were all drunk.

Without fail, sensing that things were quickly devolving into an “incident,” the Officer of the Day (OOD), an armed, on-duty Staff NCO or officer, was summoned to send people back to their rooms and out of sight. Seeing the “enemy,” Marines began winging beer bottles at him and booing. In fear for his safety, he retreated – still armed, by the way. To my knowledge, he never ventured out again. He, and others, simply sent out a plea for base maintenance to QUICKLY restore power. Maybe they’d all go inside and watch TV or something.

That way was the first and last time I stated publicly that I was embarrassed to be a Marine sometimes. This remark followed me indefinitely.

These stateside shenanigans pale, however, to those that were alcohol-induced overseas. During a port visit to Italy, there were countless incidents of public drunkenness, Marines falling down in the streets and others falling on top of them. One Marine found it a good idea to stab the bus seat – and paid through the nose for it. Some picked fights or defended others in fights. A few were lugged home on the backs of their comrades – comatose from alcohol poisoning. One fell and broke her ankle. And of course, several clutched filthy trash cans and toilets and puked up their shoelaces, weeping for assistance and begging for death. Most, though, simply dropped their military ID cards into the water as they staggered up the gangplank onto the ship. They were not permitted to leave the ships again.

I had the personal thrill of having a full 25% of my Marines wind up charged for one thing or another – arriving back on ship late, losing an ID to a hooker in an off-limits establishment, and so forth. That one, by the way, was married.

Even in Iraq some of these incidents persisted. Where there is a will, or perhaps an addiction, there is a way. While I never personally witnessed the following, I was informed of it from a “reliable source.” One Marine, somehow finding alcohol, abandoned his night post (and lone comrade) at a vehicle checkpoint, dropped his gear, and wandered off into the city. Were it not for the fact that an Iraqi National Guardsman followed him, I don’t know if he’d have lived.

Others broke into and stole a car and drove around the city – supposedly beheading a dog and leaving it on an Iraqi’s dining room table. Naturally, they were charged for this.

But my personal favorite is, by far, the best. At another checkpoint in the city, Marines were supposed to man machine guns at either end of their position. When the battalion commander drove up in his convoy, he immediately observed one slumped over his gun – passed out. Another snored in a nearby bunker. In fact, the only two Marines that were awake were standing on the center of the bridge. One hurled water bottles into the air and the other tried to shoot them before they hit the water. When they saw the battalion commander, they invited him to join in their fun. How very courteous.

It is well-known that a number of Marines have drinking problems, but the consequences of their habits are less publicized, with good reason. They’re completely embarrassing. Nevertheless, they are somewhat humorous, if one can set aside total horror about the matter.

Whenever there is another threat of awful weather, I will join the throngs clamoring for bread and milk, because I like bread and milk. The beer aisle I will leave alone. Should you find it empty, there must be Marines in town. In which case, the coming weather is not your greatest concern. Purchase your staples, go home, lock and bar the doors, confine your dogs and send your daughters to their rooms. Then just wait out the storm, with a gun in your hand.

“Lock up your daughter; lock up your wives. Lock all the doors and run for your lives.” – ACDC, “TNT”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. While this generation thinks they invented this kind of behavior, I once threw up in the laps of two beautiful young women on a Chicago street bus. They are great grandmothers now, but likely remember it. I certainly do. However, on the same bus was a young Marine who had apparently gotten lucky that night. He was standing in the aisle and hanging from a strap while proudly displaying the smeared evidence of his success on the front of his green uniform trousers. I guess he was in a hurry and could not get undressed. That was several wars ago.

  2. Are the upper eschelons in the Marines making any attempt to instill in the recruits that while they are on foreign soil that they will be asked, indeed expected, to be emissaries of the United States of America? They are that, whether they so chose or not. I don't so much care what they do while on our soil -- we have ways of dealing with that, and can tell college age exhuberance from criminal intent. However, once off our soil (I'd count the base where they are stationed as our soil), they should know what is expected: Boy Scouts on sterioids comes to mind. If winning the peace (an odd phrase) is what we really have in mind, we need to be sure that the non-war actions of the most visible elements aren't losing it for us. Back to my original point/question: Is "upper management" teaching the troops that THEY are what the local citizenry sees as the best of America, and that as such, it is their duty to BE the best of America when in their sight?
    Auntie C

  3. In answer to your question, we have had it firmly drilled in our heads that, while visiting foreign countries, we are, in essence, ambassadors for the United States. Yet unfortunately, the desperation to get off ships, to satisfy a craving, or generally let loose frequently overpowers what we know to be true. Boy Scouts on steroids. Boy Scouts with guns as well. While I firmly believe that this behavior is the infrequent and isolated, it tends to draw the most attention. We, collectively, pay for that. There are some towns where I gather Marines are no longer welcome.

  4. I am really getting a kick out of this one because all afternoon I have been on line with the United States Postal Service and reading the new updates of restricted and prohibited items to mail in care packages. According to the updated Oct 2008 Postal Bulletin, we are not even allowed to send mouthwash over there anymore because of the alcohol content.
    Coffee is prohibited too in many APO's. No wonder the Marines are losing it...

  5. Coffee and mouthwash is prohibited in many FPO address's too. I rest my case.

  6. Nothing disparaging meant by the Boy Scouts on steriods comment, just trying to come up with a new term for the dicotomy between having to look like a recruiting poster (the Boy Scouts bit, clean-cut, for God and Country) while also being able to heft that gun mortor whatever and do the damage required by the job (the steroids bit), and how difficult it must be.

    Sarah: No coffee or mouthwash? Hard to tell whether to laugh or cry.
    Auntie C

  7. The things my peers did while in college were on the whole much worse; this isn't to lower Marine standards, but rather to say "shame, shame" on everybody acting immature. 18-22 year olds should act twice their age, at least.