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Camp Pendleton Marines Subject To Random Breathalyzer Tests

John Veneziano, the director of Camp Pendleton's Consolidated Substance Abuse Counseling Center, and Dr. Robert Anthenelli, the associate chief of staff for mental health at the San Diego VA Medical Center, talk to KPBS about breathalyzers for Marines.

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Sailors have already been punished for using designer drugs such as bath salts and spice. Now, the Marine Corps will require Marines to take random breathalyzer tests twice a year. It's the strictest anti-alcohol policy in the military.

Under the new order, a Marine or sailor who registers a blood-alcohol level of 0.01 percent will be referred for counseling and a Marine can be deemed unfit for duty at 0.04 percent.

John Veneziano, the director of Camp Pendleton's Consolidated Substance Abuse Counseling Center, said the breathalyzers will act as a deterrent, not to "try to catch anybody."

Each commander, battalion and squadron unit will have at least one hand-held breathalyzer, and commanding officers can use the units if they detect an odor of alcohol, Veneziano said.

"They'll be able to say, 'we have had a long weekend,' whatever their decision is to deploy that, whether they want to do a percentage per month, per week, but we're asking that they do everybody, every Marine at least twice a year," he said.

"Again, it's not to go out and catch somebody, it's just to make them aware that there's a possibility that you could come to work and be breathalyzed, and that will hopefully deter some of the Marines from coming in intoxicated or with any alcohol in their system," he added.

He said the breathalyzers can be used with or without cause, either during normal working hours or any time during the day or night.

"We have Marines working 24 hours, so we wouldn't expect them to be drinking at all," he said. "But we're expecting Marines to come in at 7:30 a.m. with no alcohol in their system. And if you go out and drink the night before, it will metabolize through the body at a regular rate. But if you go out and drink a case of beer, you start at midnight, you're probably going to have some alcohol in your system come 7 in the morning. And that's what we don't want to happen."

The new rules come on the heels of a report from the Institute of Medicine, which found that binge drinking by active-duty troops now constitutes "a public health crisis."

The report, commissioned by the Department of Defense, found that binge drinking in the military has increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 47 percent in 2008, the last year data is available.

Dr. Robert Anthenelli, the associate chief of staff for mental health at the San Diego VA Medical Center, said the report also acknowledges drinking is part of the military's culture.

"Well, we've known since the creation of the military that drinking and drug use has played an important role in some of the recreational activities, and as a result we've been dealing with high rates of use among military personnel throughout all the wars," he said.

He also pointed out the military is made up predominantly of young men, a demographic that already sees high levels of drinking.

"Then there's some cultural aspects where use of alcohol as a recreational substance is part of the ethos," he said.

But Veneziano said he hasn't seen an increase in binge drinking at Camp Pendleton.

"I think it comes and goes with the forces coming back to Camp Pendleton," he said. "Obviously there's more active duty members there. It goes with the number of forces that are on Camp Pendleton. If we have all the forces back at Camp Pendleton, we may see a larger number coming through my doors. But I don't know that we've seen any spike. Obviously with the war that's been going on, that's more people have used alcohol probably than maybe previously, but I don't know that there's a spike."

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.


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