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Alcohol is the 'lone common denominator'

Assistant SECNAV weighs in on drinking, suicide, sex assault & more

Jul. 22, 2013 - 05:58PM   |  
21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative
Juan Garcia, assistant Navy secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, discusses the 21st Century Sailor and Marine initiative with sailors. (MC2 (AW) Gary Granger Jr. / Navy)
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Alcohol is a common denominator among some of the Navy's worst problems, including suicides and sexual assaults. So sailors should not be surprised to see the Navy taking more offensive actions to curb the abuse.

Alcohol is a common denominator among some of the Navy's worst problems, including suicides and sexual assaults. So sailors should not be surprised to see the Navy taking more offensive actions to curb the abuse.

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Alcohol is a common denominator among some of the Navy’s worst problems, including suicides and sexual assaults. So sailors should not be surprised to see the Navy taking more offensive actions to curb the abuse.

Juan Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs, sat down with Navy Times earlier this month to talk more about the latest alcohol crackdown and other issues affecting the health and wellness of the fleet, including fitness, suicide and sexual assault.

Garcia, a commander in the Reserve, discussed strengthening the resiliency of sailors under the broad wellness program known as 21st Century Sailor and Marine.

And what exactly is resiliency, anyway? He talks about that, too.

Interview excerpts, edited for space and clarity:

Q. What is the status of the 21st Century initiative as it moves into its second year?

A. We spent a couple of months last year taking the program around the fleet knowing there would be some misunderstanding or ambiguity about new programs, such as the alcohol detection devices. We wanted to lay the groundwork by meeting sailors eyeball to eyeball and communicate to them and their families what this was going to mean.

We’ve formalized the program with the new 21st Century Sailor Office and devoted a flag officer to it, and I think that speaks to the commitment the department has to the program. In an era and environment of decreasing flagpoles, it’s a big statement to create a new flag office.

Over the past 11 years, our people have been involved in the longest sustained combat operations in American history ... a relentless operational tempo that we know has taken a toll on our folks and families.

We know that there is a new national defense strategy with the rebalance to the Pacific, and this is going to be a service-intensive strategy focusing on the Navy and Marine Corps. So there’s very little reason to believe that that operational tempo is going to let up anytime soon, so we want to make sure that our people have the tools they need to remain resilient, exceed and excel in the coming decade.

Q. That seems to be a new buzzword. How do you define “resiliency”?

A. In my mind, it works like this: Despite the extended cruises and deployments that our sailors have been operating under for the last few years, resiliency allows them to find that optimum balance between their professional [and] personal lives, through physical and mental preparation so they’re ready to go for the nation’s tasking as required.

That they’re fit both physically and mentally when they do deploy and when they do come home and or move to shore duty, that they do have time to recharge — to me, at the end of the day is what we’re trying to get at with resilience.

Q. One area you seem to focus on in the initiative is physical fitness. Where is the Navy at with fitness these days? How is the force doing, and what is your focus?

A. Well, I think physical fitness is an important part of resiliency. I think you’d agree that our Navy doesn’t look like it used to.

We’ve seen it grow from a culture of testing — where people were on the “three miles a year program” to what we have today. I’ll tell you, the [physical readiness test and the physical fitness assessment], as a military program, would be unrecognizable to the gaggle of guys in shorts and Led Zeppelin T-shirts that I knew as a junior officer — there’s a real level of accountability there now. Where the 21st Century program comes into that is getting sailors the tools to transition to a culture of fitness versus a culture of testing. Part of that is teaching our sailors proper nutrition. Nobody’s gonna tell sailors they have to eat their broccoli or their spinach. They’re all grown-ups. But we’re going to ensure that they have the best options. That they’re smart and trained in the know-how to take care of themselves.

So, for example, we’re ensuring that across the fleet in wardrooms, galleys and mess halls at each meal, three times a day, there is at least one healthy entrée and one healthy side dish taken from the [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] “most healthy” list.

We’ve changed the focus of training for command fitness leaders — one in every command — so they’re not only trained on running the PFA, they’re also trained on providing state-of-the-art physical training guidance to our people, whether you’re on a submarine or a destroyer. They have the tools and the training to keep our sailors fit, year-round.

Q. Despite education and other prevention efforts, suicide in the Navy has steadily increased in recent years. Can you tell me where that stands today and what you’re doing about it?

A. You are right, the trend over the years has been up. This year so far, we’re doing better than last year. This is a big part of that resiliency effort that’s being spearheaded by the 21st Century Sailor Office as well.

We’ve learned that the lone common denominator across all these things, suicides, sexual assaults and even across our DUI number is alcohol misuse.

We also realize that 98 percent of the force is using alcohol responsibly. But then it would also be irresponsible for us to ignore that common denominator, which comes across my desk and others with the morning sitreps every single day.

The suicide experts tell us it’s impossible to get an accurate reading of the blood-alcohol content for many suicides, but the working number in the suicide prevention community they think is 40 percent of all suicides involve alcohol. I think reducing alcohol misuse is critical to reducing suicides.

Q. And how is the alcohol detection device program going?

A. It’s fleetwide now. It is the piece of the 21st that has gotten the most attention. It’s still early in the process, but we continue to see ARIs — alcohol-related incidents — trending down.

During the pilot programs with the submarine community, the results were so dramatic, with a 50 to 60 percent drop in ARIs. We’re really hopeful that this, along with the other training that we’re going to continue with and roll out soon, that these trends will continue moving in the right direction.

These ADDs are another education device, another tool for Navy leaders to use and we are hopeful that the impact this is going to have will be across all the areas where we see this lone common denominator. And as the sexual assault piece moves to center stage, we’re conscious of the other services getting very interested in what we’re doing with our program.

Q. Even with all the focus on sexual harassment and sexual assault, the numbers are rising. Is this an indication the situation is getting worse, or are you simply seeing more reports?

A. We always knew that this was an under-reported crime and now, with the emphasis on [sexual assault prevention and response] in the fleet, we knew sailors would feel more comfortable coming forward and reporting and not feeling that they would be ignored or have their own behavior scrutinized heavily in the process. We wanted to create an environment where sailors were comfortable coming forward, but we knew that would mean the numbers would spike and we’re seeing that.

Now if you drill down in that data, the silver lining, if you will, is a lot of those cases are time-delayed. They’re incidents that are being reported now that took place a year ago, two years ago, even three and greater years ago.

It’s awkward to say, but I think that is good news because one, they’re not happening now, and two, folks are more willing to come forward as they know they won’t be penalized or ignored.

[Editors note: Garcia later provided data he said supports the increase in time-delayed reports. Female sailors reporting sex assaults that occurred in the previous year spiked by 15 percent in fiscal 2012. This stat only includes “unrestricted” cases, or those that are not anonymous and are processed through a sailor’s chain of command.

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