It was a devastating mistake.
What started out as a couple of drinks, turned into a nightmare that will follow one Army noncommissioned officer for the rest of his military career -- all because he got behind the wheel after having "just a few drinks."
The NCO -- whom we will refer to as Sgt. John Smith for the purpose of this story -- was assigned to a unit in the Stuttgart military community when he entered a German bar on a warm July evening.
He had developed a habit of drinking heavily following a 14-month deployment with a former unit.
"I drank and drove probably for a good seven or eight months," Smith said. "It got to the point where it didn't seem to bother me anymore."
That night, however, when the Polizei pulled him over, everything changed.
A breathalyzer test revealed Smith's blood-alcohol content level to be 0.083. The legal limit in Germany is 0.05. For those involved in an accident, the limit is 0.03.
His command was notified, and he received a general officer letter of reprimand, filed in his official record.
"That's going to haunt me for the rest of my career," Smith said.
He was also punished with a field grade-level Article 15, "Commanding Officer's Non-Judicial Punishment," from his command, which reduced his rank from E-5 to E-4.
"I went from a supervisory pay grade to a junior enlisted pay grade," Smith said. "That's a huge drop."
It took Smith more than a year to regain his rank, estimating that he lost more than $8,000 in basic pay.
The cost affected more than his wallet, however.
Once reduced, he received 45 days of restriction to post and extended duty. He worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and forfeited half of two months' pay. Smith's driver's license was revoked for one year.
The punishment was hard on his family. "It was a very stressful time for them," he said. "I had never been in trouble in my life when it happened, and I paid the consequences for it. It was an enormous shocker."
Additionally, his unit requested that he be separated from the Army for misconduct. As an NCO with six years of service, Smith was entitled to a separation board made up of his superiors. He was recommended for retention, based on his performance record.
However, he still struggled to be accepted back into his unit. "The guys were telling me that I wasn't fit to wear the uniform," Smith said.
Once back at work, Smith was often called upon to talk about his experience, as an example. "It was very, very demeaning to be called out time and time again in front of a large group of people," he said.
"I still have a stigma to this day with certain superiors," he added.
He spent the following year in the Army Substance Abuse Program and went through a six-week rehabilitation program in Landstuhl.
"I used every resource available to me, as far as support goes," Smith said. "I was determined to get through this."
Since then, he has limited his drinking and never drives himself to a bar. He also warns other Soldiers about the consequences of drinking and driving.
"I have agreed to put my story out there to prevent other Soldiers from making the same mistake, if they listen," he said.
German law and DUI
Drivers only need one alcoholic drink to end up with a story like Smith's.
In Germany, 0.05 is the legal limit for blood alcohol while driving. This is lower than the U.S. limit of 0.08, and the German limit applies on post as well.
Those caught drinking and driving in Germany could be detained by the German police, even if they are driving below the limit, according to Army Capt. Keenan Daniels, judge advocate for the Stuttgart Law Center.
"Anytime you drive with alcohol on your breath, the Polizei can arrest you" he said. "Also, the Polizei often test for drugs such as marijuana. Polizei drug tests are more sensitive than even military testing. Even if the driver consumed the drug days or weeks prior, the Polizei may find residual traces and arrest the driver."
"Under the UCMJ, a driver can be arrested for DUI even if the vehicle is parked. The driver could be charged if they have actual physical control of the vehicle while drunk, simply by sitting in the driver seat with the keys in their pocket. Soldiers have been arrested, and charged with a DUI type offenses for sleeping in the driver's seat, or having the engine on to play the radio or run the heater."
"Folks in Europe really need to have that in the back of their mind -- they're risking more by having a couple of drinks in Europe and driving home than they would in the States," Daniels added.
By possessing a U.S. Forces certificate of license and operating a Privately Owned Vehicle, an individual consents to chemical testing. And, if they have Blood Alcohol Content of .05 or higher, their U.S. Army Europe license will be confiscated immediately.
Army in Europe Regulation 190-1, "Driver and Vehicle Requirements and the Installation Traffic Code for the U.S. Forces in Germany," imposes minimum punishments for individuals who receive a DUI:
1. If an individual's BAC is between 0.05 and 0.079, their U.S. Army Europe driver's license will be suspended for a minimum of 90 days.
2. One year revocation is mandatory for individuals who refuse to submit to chemical testing, operate a vehicle with a BAC of .08 or higher, or test positive for an illegal substance.
3. If an individual has two DUIs with a BAC of .05 or higher within a five year period their license will be revoked for five years. Further, three alcohol-related traffic offenses will result in the permanent loss of the U.S. Forces license, Daniels said.
4. To reinstate their driver's license after a DUI incident, service members and civilians must complete the ASAP training, take remedial drivers' training, and possess a stateside driver's license before they can obtain a letter from the garrison commander recommending reinstatement.
Army Regulation 600-85, "The Army Substance Abuse Program," requires commanders to initiate separation for Soldiers that:
1. Receive two convictions of DUI or DWI during the course of their career, or
2. Are involved in two serious incidents of alcohol-related misconduct in a 12 month period.
Only service members are required to take ASAP training; however, everyone should visit the ASAP office soon after an incident to get the process started, rather than waiting until the revocation period is over.
In addition to a license suspension, service members under the jurisdiction of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command who are caught driving with a BAC of 0.05 or more will receive a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, which can be filed locally or in their permanent file, Daniels said.
Those caught driving with a BAC of 0.1 or more are in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and face either a court-martial or, more commonly, a non-judicial action (Article 15) from their commander, Daniels said.
Under Article 15, the maximum punishment could include:
• E-4 and below: loss of all rank to E-1, loss of half of one month's pay for two months, and up to 60 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
• E-5/E-6: loss of one rank, loss of half of one month's pay for two months, and up to 60 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
• E-7 and above: may lose rank if punishment is imposed by a general officer, loss of half a month's pay for two months, and 45 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
• Officer: no loss of rank, restriction for 30 days, arrest in quarters for 60 days, loss of half of one month's pay for two months.
Driving with any level of intoxication sufficient to impair the mental or physical faculties, could be tried at a court-martial, Daniels added.
At a court-martial for drunken driving, the maximum punishment a service member could receive is: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 18 months.
Army Regulation 600-85 requires commanders to initiate separation for that Soldiers that:
• Receive two convictions of DUI or DWI during the course of their career, or
• Are involved in two serious incidents of alcohol-related misconduct in a 12-month period.
Unlike service members, civilian employees and their family members who drive while intoxicated fall under the garrison Civilian Misconduct Action Authority (CMAA).
Civilians who apply for a USAEUR driver's license become subject to AER 190-1 and imply consent to disciplinary actions by the CMAA if found in violation of the law.
Civilians caught driving under the influence of alcohol with a BAC level of 0.1 and above may be fined more than €1,000 and issued penal orders by local courts upon request of the district attorney. A penal order is a summary judgment -- a criminal fine.
Penal orders have harsher consequences than a traffic ticket. It's more of a criminal misdemeanor kind of judgment.
When a civilian does not pay a penal order, German authorities will order confinement in lieu of payment for a number of days corresponding to the amount of the fine.
Depending on their BAC, civilians will also have their driver's license suspended or revoked.
U.S. Forces are bound by agreement to revoke a USAREUR license for as long as the German government requires, but they may also extend the period of punishment.
In addition, USAREUR may indefinitely revoke driving privileges for individuals who have multiple violations.
Civilian government employees will also likely lose their security clearances. If their job requires a security clearance, they will likely be terminated.
From day one in basic training, we learned about core values and the consequences of violations of those values. Certain violations, such DUIs, can result in separation or criminal prosecution of the offenders.
We did not join the military to become criminals. No one wants to look their spouse, parent, or friend in the eye and tell them that they are about to be separated from the military or go to jail because they chose to drink and drive.
If you are concerned about your drinking or someone else's drinking, seek help by calling the USAG Stuttgart Army Substance Abuse Program office at DSN 431-2530/civ. 07031-15-2530.
For more tips, visit the Talk Early, Talk Often website or contact the Stuttgart Army Substance Abuse Program at DSN 431-2530/civ. 07031-15-2530.