FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 15, 2009) – The Army is in a constant state of evolution. I mean that literally. When I think about that concept, I can’t help but ponder how far the Army has come in terms of improving Soldiers’ health and fitness.
Smoking and alcohol consumption were major issues in the Army’s effort to that end. Smoking especially drew the Army’s attention because it was particularly deep-rooted in its culture.
I can recall watching old war movies as a child and how smoking amongst Soldiers was as commonplace as a canteen, especially for those manning the front lines. I specifically remember one 1950s action drama in which a Soldier is near death after being shot. He tells a buddy, who has him cradled in his arms, “Give me a ‘butt,’ before I go.” The buddy obliges and the Soldier takes his last breaths – accompanied by cigarette smoke, of course.
The old-school Soldiers will tell you that cigarettes were included in some of the field rations. It was meant as a treat like the sticks of gum included in food units decades later.
During my 1979 basic training, we were afforded a smoke break about every hour. “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” the drill sergeant would say, and half the platoon would light up and burn them to the butts in 10 minutes or less.
My formative years impressed upon me that Soldiers and smoking went together like black leather glove shells and wool inserts: you couldn’t have one without the other.
Eventually, the Army would be enlightened. Smoking was unhealthy, costly and had a negative effect on readiness. The institution moved to deter the practice with its de-glamorization of alcohol and tobacco campaigns of the 1980s. Ignorant of the details, I gathered it aimed to educate Soldiers about the dangers of smoking, promote fitness and disassociate the practice with being cool or hip.
The campaign was implemented with the fierceness of an ambush. Before you knew what hit you, smoking was banned from government buildings, the physical training program was ramped up and noncommissioned officers ceased using the word ‘smoke’ with ‘break.’
Smokers and smoking were essentially and successfully cast out of their traditional place in military life.
The war on alcohol consumption raged as well. The 50-cents-a-glass-of-beer ‘Happy Hour’ events at the installation clubs were discontinued. The beloved beer machines prominently featured in dayrooms were carted off. The lunchtime two-beer rule was scratched.
And there’s more. Military policemen got tougher on drunk drivers. Units began designating drivers for functions that featured alcohol. Substance abuse programs were sprouting up everywhere.
There were those who were critical about the Army’s bold, new posture. That was to be expected. Change from longstanding cultural practices tends to meet with resistance. The voices of resistance, however, were drowned out by the momentum of change. New leaderships were dictating new lines of thinking and if you didn’t get on board, you were left behind.
Needless to say, there were throngs of smokers and drinkers huddled at the train stations.
But the Army moved full speed ahead, and the deterrence of alcohol and tobacco consumption was just one stop along the road toward a post-Vietnam War makeover the Army needed to bolster recruitment and renew itself for a changing world.
Soldiers are more fit and healthier now than at any time I know. Many of them run outside of PT, many lift weights, many are into yoga and other new-age fitness programs, and many are living longer after retirement. Many of them neither smoke nor drink. Healthy and fit Soldiers lessen the strain on the military healthcare system and are physically better prepared to endure the rigors of military duty.
That was the point, wasn’t it? But there’s something else we can take from this transformation. Although the Army is full of tradition and ritual, it still has to change. It will change tomorrow, the next day and the day after. We can count on it. That’s to say that change is inevitable. It’s also to say that Soldiers should board the train of change with an open mind and thoughtful consideration for the trip ahead. It may not get you to the destination of your choice, but you can be assured you won’t get left behind.