CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Jan. 5, 2012) -- Three Soldiers sitting front row for a briefing on the dangers of drinking and driving appear distracted and sleepy. It may have something to do with the fact that they are all slightly intoxicated.
Their state of inebriation, however, is not a picture of irony or irresponsibility. Rather, their unit is hosting a "safety stand-down," and they have been authorized by their commander to intake alcohol during the event in order to directly demonstrate how it affects their vision, balance and other cognitive abilities.
Soldiers assigned to the 78th Signal Battalion were at the Community Activity Center here Jan. 5 for the stand-down, which was deliberately held immediately after the holiday season to reiterate the importance of responsible drinking practices, the unit's command sergeant major said.
"We wanted to send a message of reality," said Command Sgt. Maj. Steven Caffee. "The message we're trying to send home is: You have one drink, all bets are off. You're not driving, period."
The three Soldiers each drank a total of three 12-ounce beers: one per hour, over a period of two hours. In between each drink, Sgt. Nathan Dillon, a military police officer assigned to the 88th MP Detachment here, checked their blood-alcohol content levels and noted the results.
The Soldiers -- two males and one female -- were chosen for their variances in height, weight and gender. This was meant to allow Dillon to show those in attendance how differently alcohol can affect people based on their unique physical attributes, he said.
"There is no better way than visually seeing what happens [to a person] under the influence of alcohol," said Dillon, the noncommissioned officer in charge of traffic accident investigations. "[But] you want it to be seen in a controlled environment."
The results were in line with Dillon's presumptions: After their first beers, the two big and tall male Soldiers, Spc. Benjamin Davis and Sgt. Matthew Bonnstetter, both registered Blood Alcohol Content, or BAC, levels of .000, meaning the alcohol had not yet entered their blood streams. However, Sgt. Tawana Davenport, a female barely above 5 feet tall, registered a reading of .026, which put her near Japan's strict limit of .03 at which a driver is legally considered "under the influence."
In subsequent readings, all three Soldiers registered BAC levels that spiked significantly after their third beers: Davis went from .008 to .075, Bonnstetter from .018 to .047, and Davenport from .03 to .06 -- all of them exceeding Japan's DUI limit. Each Soldier admitted to feeling the effects of the alcohol as the demonstration progressed.
"I could begin to feel impaired shortly after my second beer. I was starting to feel sluggish," said Bonnstetter, the communications and maintenance noncommissioned officer in charge for 78th Signal. "Well into my third beer, I could fully feel the effects. It did take time for [the alcohol] to begin to leave my system."
Dillon then subjected the three Soldiers to a number of exercises to gauge their respective levels of intoxication and demonstrate to the audience the different ways in which alcohol can impair a person's vision and motor skills, among others.
"We wanted to demonstrate that key concept that no matter who you are -- male, female, how tall, or how much you weigh -- alcohol affects everybody differently, and we need to keep that in mind," said Dillon. "We wanted to show that no matter what the level [of tolerance] is for that person, there is going to be some degree of impairment."
Bonnstetter said he felt the demonstration was a beneficial and educational experience for the Soldiers in his unit, and much more effective than just watching a video or listening to a guest speaker.
"When you have that visual representation and you can actually see the effects of what happens," said Bonnstetter, "it has a much larger effect on how a person thinks and feels about [it]."
He does not mean to forbid his Soldiers the right to drink alcohol on occasion, Caffee said, but rather hopes to encourage that they do so responsibly. Social drinking is fine, he added, but it should never be combined with driving a vehicle.
"It affects the Soldiers. It affects their careers. It affects mission readiness," said Caffee. "When a Soldier gets involved in an [alcohol-related] incident, it brings down the morale of the entire section, squad or company that he or she is in. It's a lose-lose situation."
Davis, Bonnstetter and Davenport each had a designated driver to take them home following the training event.