Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=97969
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 1:03:03 AM CST
Photo illustration by Anthony Pura/MNS
Alcohol was a key part of military culture, according to Conrad Crane, a military historian at the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania. He was also a U.S.Army captain during peacetime in the late 1970s.
“Every Friday, your unit went to the officer’s club for happy hour and we all had our inscribed mugs,” he said. “And if you didn’t drink beer, you were considered something strange.”
But alcohol went beyond an end of the week kick-back routine, it was the root of major disciplinary problems among soldiers.
“One of our best sergeants used to always have a special coffee in the morning,” Crane said. “Eventually we found out he was basically hitting the sauce all day.”
Many had refrigerators in their room stocked with beer or hard liquor, according to Crane. Soldiers were prohibited from drinking while on duty, but it was easy to do so and many did, he said.
Crane was in charge or surprise room inspections. Unlike today, the commanding officers were not concerned with their men smuggling alcohol; it was the drugs that they were really concerned about.
“There was a sense that almost everything went,” Crane said.
He attributes most of the unprofessional, out-of-control behavior of his days in the service to the end of the draft in 1973. The military switched over to an all volunteer force and standards began to loosen up.
“The old motto was that the Army wants to join you,” he said. “That’s the first motto of the all volunteer force.”
But during the 1980s, the military underwent dramatic change. Alcohol was deglamorized throughout the country and the military spearheaded the backlash against it due to the problems it caused.
It became a hard-and-fast rule for troops that a drunken incident was an easy way to end one's career in the military.
There was a movement to professionalize the armed forces, Crane said, and during the 1990s, the military became a more family oriented force. More soldiers have wives and families these days, as opposed to the military that Crane served in that was mostly a force composed of young single men.
As the pendulum swung, the armed forces became more sophisticated and incidents involving alcohol, drugs and pornography occurred less frequently.
WASHINGTON -- Before he was sent to Iraq, Adam Kokesh received a pile of paperwork standard for all U.S. servicemen being sent to the region. In it were his general orders, protocols and tactical instructions for his mission in the Middle East.
It was February, 2004. Kokesh was in Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in Southern California. He flipped through the papers, glazed over some text. He paid little attention to a few sheets of paper titled General Order 1, which prohibited a number of contrabands, including alcohol.
The ban on alcohol is tied to the U.S. mission in the Middle East, according to Lt. Com. Bill Speaks, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which has jurisdiction over operations in Iraq. “We’re there to provide help and set conditions for security and stability within that country, so to have our forces consuming alcoholic beverages is not consistent with that.”
Though Iraq is not a “dry” country, the rule is set by operational leaders, who believe that the possession of alcohol might offend local customs.
“The intent is to ensure our forces exemplify professionalism while they’re performing these missions,” Speaks said.
At 22 years old, Kokesh, a native of Santa Fe. N.M., volunteered to go to the Iraq from the enlisted reserves. He was idealistic and wanted to help rebuild the country, but he thought the policy was a joke.
“It was thrown out as this really serious thing,” Kokesh said of General Order 1, which not only barred booze but other items such as cigarettes and pornography. “But everybody saw it and was like, ‘alright, I can’t take this seriously.’”
Kokesh spent the next seven months in Iraq, earning a promotion from corporal to sergeant in the Third Civil Affairs Group. He and his six-man unit were sent to man a check-point in the west-end of Fallujah during the siege that city. They were also assigned to provide humanitarian aid for civilians during the combat operations. Kokesh received a Commendation medal from the Secretary of the Navy for his “courageous action, initiative and complete dedication to duty” for his services in Fallujah.
Kokesh had his share of disciplinary problems at the end of his service in Iraq. He was bumped down to corporal for smuggling a pistol back to the U.S. Last year, he was given a general discharge, a condition just below honorable discharge, for wearing his uniform at an anti-war protest. Kokesh is now an anti-war activist and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
To Kokesh, drinking was a recreational, stress-relieving activity, a sort of juvenile way to challenge the rules. It was never a priority over the mission or the safety of the other Marines.
But many servicemen returning home from combat develop alcohol problems, according to a recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
During his service, Kokesh admits to deliberately violating General Order 1 by having alcohol in Iraq, though he said it was common among soldiers. No one ever blew the whistle on them, but everyone knew that alcohol was there.
It wasn’t a big secret, he said. The first time Kokesh illegally obtained alcohol was from a 10-year-old Iraqi boy. Kokesh said he was guarding his cargo vehicle, when he was approached by a group of Iraqi children who tried to sell things to him and his unit. The Marines bought some old Saddam dinars (the Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein’s face) from the boys and asked if they had any alcohol. One of kids came back with a fifth of whisky and sold it to him for five U.S. dollars.
But most of the time, Kokesh got alcohol from a translator working with his unit in the civil military op center just outside of Fallujah. The translator would commute to Baghdad every day and quickly became the “hook up” for Kokesh and his unit.
“I said ‘could you get me a couple of cases of alcohol? I want a case of gin and case of vodka,’” Kokesh recalls. “And he said ‘yeah, sure.' ” It cost him $80 for each case, twenty bottles in all.
But that was the hard way of getting alcohol in the country. The easiest and more common way was through the mail in care packages.
“Care packages weren’t illegal,” he said, “so anything you could put in the mail in the United States, you could get in the mail in Iraq. So theoretically you could get anything.”
The most popular way of sending alcohol was to put it in mouthwash containers, according to Kokesh, that way it would seem like they were getting something that they were supposed to be getting.
“People would talk openly about it,” he said. “People would get kind of elaborate [with their plans]. They’d be like ‘tell them to put it in a Listerine bottle and add like two drops of food coloring and it’ll look exactly like Listerine.’”
But there wasn’t any real need for the extra precaution. Alcohol was mailed to Kokesh in undisguised bottles and was never intercepted. In his case, Kokesh said he had his friends from back home send him alcohol in care packages about four times during his stay in Iraq.
Once was a bottle of Dooley’s, a toffee crème liqueur which was his favorite. And another time was a handle of Everclear, which was the strongest grain alcohol, sold in the United States.
“It wasn’t like drinking was a big deal,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to just hang out and get drunk. I was busy doing [stuff] everyday, 24-hours a day, I was busy. So it was kind of a rare thing when you got it. You would save it for a special occasion when you knew you had a night to relax. But those were kind of rare.”
But as easy as it was to get booze, Kokesh said troops had to be very discreet about drinking. Bottles were never left out and the alcohol was always transferred to another container like a canteen or a water bottle.
The punishment for violating General Order 1 would result in removal from theatre and a trial before a military court. If found the guilty, the punishment is at the discretion of the commanding officer, according to Navy Lt. David Russell, a spokesman for Multi-National Forces-Iraq. It could be anything from demotion, or jail-time to discharge.
“Obviously there would be circumstances,” Russell said. “But my guess is that it wouldn’t be a fun thing to go through if you want to make the military a career.”
However, enforcement of the policy is often difficult since it relies on troops reporting other troops. Military police were not actively performing surprise room checks in search of illegal items.
“People find a way to smuggle it as they smuggle alcohol in a [movie] theatre,” said Speaks, the U.S. Cent-Com spokesman. “I mean if they’re caught, of course they are punished.”
Records of violations of General Order 1 are kept by local commanders and are considered private. The information is not available because no one is tracking it, according to Major John Hall, a spokesman for Multi-National Forces – Iraq.
Kokesh said he doesn’t know of anyone that had been caught or punished for having possession of alcohol in Iraq. It was sort of an unspoken truth between their unit and their commanding officer that alcohol was there, but as long as it didn’t create problems, there was no need to report it.
“My staff sergeant told me that our team commander had some alcohol at one point,” Kokesh said. “But he was totally discreet about it and I didn’t care. But if I ever saw him drunk on a mission I’d report him myself.”
That was where he and other servicemen would draw the line. During the siege of Fallujah, he and his unit, and other units were out sleeping in the dirt for 18 days and no one was thinking about having a drink.
“When you’re out in the field, you don’t [mess] with that,” Kokesh said. “If you’re out in a mission of any kind, if you’re outside the wire, you wouldn’t be drinking.”
A permissive attitude toward drinking doesn’t work in a high-risk, high-combat prone region like Iraq, according to Dr. Leonard Wong, a professor of military strategy at the Strategic Studies Institute in Pennsylvania.
“They don’t commute to war,” Wong said. “It’s not like you can punch the clock and say that’s it, I’m off duty.” So that means they had to be ready around the clock.
Kokesh agrees that was always a risk.
During his last months, he and his unit were moved to the Civil Military Operation Center, which worked mainly with Iraqi contractors. He was in charge of manning a checkpoint, and the risk of combat was much lower than during the siege of Fallujah. He drank more often on those nights, because his days were more predictable. But in the back of his head, there was always that lingering “what if” something goes wrong scenario.
“It was always a possibility,” he said, “but I came out of Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I imagine it would’ve been a lot worse if I didn’t take a couple of those evenings to get drunk.”
If worse came to worse, and something unexpected happened after drinking, Kokesh said he would’ve confessed to being incapacitated rather than put anyone at harm, regardless of the punishment he would have faced.
“Maybe I would get in trouble,” he said, “but it would depend on what exactly was going on with his (commanding officer's) mood at the time, but that was part of the risk and that was part of the fun of it.”
But it never happened. Now it’s been almost four years since he’s left Iraqi soil and can drink alcohol without any major concerns. But Kokesh said that he still has some buddies in the Middle East and he was planning on sending them a care package. He smiled, but wouldn’t say what was in it.