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Has the drinking culture in the Armed Forces gone too far?

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With numerous accounts of alcohol being the cause for a series of problems to hit the MoD in the last month – we ask are the individuals or the drinking culture itself to blame?

Last week the head of the MoD, Sir Michael Fallon resigned after historic claims about unwanted advances began to leak out.

While he did not wear a uniform and has no formal military background he was the man that the Chief of the Defence Staff reported to. As a result his office carries with it a degree of responsibility and integrity that Downing Street felt he was incapable of upholding.

It has since emerged that that he had lunged at journalist Jane Merrick and attempted to kiss her on the lips after they had lunched together.

At the time of the alleged incident she was a 29-year-old junior political reporter at the Daily Mail and has since said: “I felt humiliated, ashamed. Was I even guilty that maybe I had led him on in some way by drinking with him?”

Sir Michael said: “…in the past I have fallen below the high standards that we require of the Armed Forces that I have the honour to represent.”

This was the final straw for No. 10, who had been receiving numerous allegations about Fallon; his resignation came shortly afterwards.

Westminster is a ‘cut-throat’ environment where politicians can rise and fall with a drop of a hat; Fallon was just the latest victim of this.

But this form of inappropriate behaviour is not an isolated incident within the MoD. Last month the Captain and three other officers from the nuclear submarine HMS Vigilant were removed from their posts, after it emerged they had inappropriate sexual relationships with each other; so too were nine of the crew who tested positive for cocaine.

The DailyMail labelled the submarine tasked with providing our ‘Continuous-at-sea-deterrent’ HMS Sex and Cocaine after it emerged there was a culture of heavy partying while ashore. And now similar allegations are being reported about some of the ships company from HMS Daring and HMS Shoreham.

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The Captain of HMS Vigilant, Commander Stuart Armstrong, was alleged to have had a sexual relationship with a junior female officer, Sub Lieutenant Rebecca Edwards, while at sea.

Earlier this year Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Tomkins, from the Army – was cleared of a single count of rape against a subordinate in her room after an important meeting in an African hotel. 

The judge over seeing the case went on to say: “I would like to put it on record that too many offences occur because of the abuse of alcohol, more needs to be done by the services to address this issue.”

In 2015 Samuel Mitchell was accused of raping a girl when they were both Officer Cadets attending a ‘Victory in Europe Day’ party at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

He was found not guilty but Judge Advocate General of the Armed Forces Jeff Blackett criticised Mitchell for taking advantage of the complainant’s drunken state.

He said: “Whatever happened to her on that evening, between you and her, she didn’t invite you into her cabin, you took advantage of her when she was in an inebriated state and you were looking for sex.”

Logistician Andrew Donaldson, who was serving onboard HMS Northumberland, was dismissed with disgrace from the Royal Navy and made to sign the sex offenders’ register indefinitely after he was convicted of assault for thrusting a beer bottle up the bottom of his colleague in a drunken prank – he was jailed for five years in 2015.

And in September three Royal Marines were discharged from the service after an initiation ceremony in a packed Scottish nightclub involving urinating in each others mouths before shaking their private parts in front of horrified drinkers.

The common factor in all of these circumstances seems to be alcohol. Yet little to date has been done to change the culture of drinking in the Armed Forces. People are certainly punished when caught for overstepping the mark but are encouraged to drink heavily from the start of their training – through peer pressure or the absence of leadership supporting the alternative option that it is perfectly acceptable not to drink.

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A court heard how Luke Bowen urinated in the mouths of fellow Marines Jordan Coia and Ben James.

One former Officer Cadet from Britannia Royal Naval College that we spoke to claims there were three separate bars that recruits could buy alcohol from on camp – raising questions if alcohol should be permitted in any Phase 1 training establishment; as recruits get in the habit of drinking too much early on. Alcohol in the military is heavily subsidised – a pint of beer can cost as little as £1.

A research study carried out by Kings College London concluded that excessive alcohol consumption is more common in the UK Armed Forces than in the general population.

The main focus on adverse mental health conditions from military service is post-traumatic stress disorder, while the reality is that one of the most frequent mental health problems for veterans is alcohol misuse.

Drink is a far bigger problem in the Army than drugs, admitted General Lord Dannatt, a former chief of general staff: “Abuse of alcohol has long been a chronic problem in the Army – more so than misuse of drugs which is dealt with very severely. The culture of working hard and then playing hard often leads to misuse of alcohol.”

More than 4,000 service personnel have been “disciplined for being intoxicated” since 2009, most of whom will have been on duty at the time, according to defence officials.

The military moulds people into what they want. It is an organisation that requires a clear and disciplined chain of command in times of war. But to obtain this autocratic style of management it must be continuously practiced, including in times of peace – even though there is not necessarily a requirement for it. As a result cultures easily develop as the weight of the established has a greater influence over fewer impressionable individuals.

In the video below training instructors film new recruits that have just been taught the Royal Engineers drinking song.

So who is to blame? Well ultimately the responsibility is down to the individual. However much can be done to limit the amount of alcohol available to service personnel, especially at such cheap rates. And a shift in culture should be adopted rather than just punishing those who over step the mark, tackling the problem from the bottom up.

There are many reasons why people turn to drink in the military: stress, boredom, guilt, loneliness, domestic issues. But as long as the MoD continue to deny a problem exists the longer they will continue to be embarrassed while new stories of inappropriate behaviour continue to emerge.

Have you witnessed of suffered the effects of alcohol misuse in the military? You can get in touch via our ‘contact’ page. 

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