Should the Drinking Age Be Lowered to 19 for Those Serving in the Military?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," June 1, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: They are old enough to risk their lives for our country, but when it comes to cracking open a cold one, they are still not allowed. One Wisconsin lawmaker wants to change that. He's fighting now to lower the drinking age from 21 to 19 for those who are serving in the military.

Joining us now is the man behind this, Rep. Mark Pettis, R-Wis., and Jim Copple, director of the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness.

So, Rep. Pettis, is this a problem? Have you got a little uprising in your district about service people not being able to have a beer when they come home?

REP. MARK PETTIS, R-WIS.: No. It's about respect, John. And I want to thank you for inviting me here.

It's about respect. We respect the judgments of these men and women overseas and in the theater and in the military. We should respect their decision-making when it comes to either entering a tavern or having a beer at 19 or 20, also.

GIBSON: Is your presumption, Mr. Pettis, that a 19-year-old who has been given a gun and is allowed to decide who to shoot and who not to shoot, that they have been taught responsibility enough that they can drink? Is that the basic thing here?

PETTIS: Absolutely, John. It's all about respect. And we give military...

GIBSON: No, no. But my question is: Is it all about judgment? Respect is one thing.

PETTIS: Yes, absolutely.

GIBSON: But you're saying that, at 19, considering their military training, they have the judgment to drink?

PETTIS: Absolutely right. Absolutely right.

GIBSON: All right.

Now, Mr. Copple, I know that we have a terrible binge-drinking (search) problem in this country with other younger people. But wouldn't you grant these military people a dispensation?

JIM COPPLE, DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR ALCOHOL AWARENESS: John, stipulating that I have great respect for the men and women who wear a uniform serving our country, but handling heavy equipment or serving in Iraq or under combat is one thing.

But handling a mind-altering substance like alcohol is a completely different thing. The fact is, the 19- and 20-year-olds in this country, those who do drink, 70 percent of them binge drink. And 50 percent of those will be binge drinking when they are age 30.

GIBSON: But, Mr. Copple, I find it hard to believe you could compare somebody who has gone through basic training and has been in combat and has had the discipline to be able to deal with staying alive with some kid who is off on a wild toot on the college campus binge drinking. It doesn't seem to me we're talking about the same critter here.

COPPLE: Well, the fact is, one of the historic lessons out of this kind of experiment was that, in Vietnam we had a very lax substance use policy, which became a substance abuse problem. President Reagan himself, when he was shoring up the military and retooling the military, said we have to deal with the issue of substance use among our young men and women in the military.



COPPLE: This is not a new...

GIBSON: Mr. Pettis, now, this...

COPPLE: This is not a new problem. It created a huge problem for us after Vietnam.

GIBSON: All right. Mr. Pettis, let us compare, let us talk about that Vietnam thing. Are young people in the military drinking on duty in Iraq? Are they doing the sort of things that we all saw in the movies that people did in Vietnam?

PETTIS: Yes. I would like to know how many of those binge drinkers that my opponent here speaks of are in the military.

I don't think we're talking about the same people. And we give military people different privileges than we do normal people because we give them different rates on loans. We give them education opportunities. We give them different things in medical care. And this is just one more privilege that we should grant our military personnel.

GIBSON: Mr. Copple, in this debate, why shouldn't I think — because you are with the International Institute For Alcohol Awareness — that you're just against drinking, per se...

COPPLE: I'm not...

GIBSON: ... whether it's a military...


GIBSON: ... person or a civilian?

COPPLE: No, just the opposite.

I'm not against drinking. But I have to ask Senator Pettis why the military itself, the United States Navy, in a publication called "Prevent" that it puts out is concerned about force and military readiness. If people are drinking in this, again, this age group that you can't compare them with just the average college student. The fact they're under greater stress...

GIBSON: You don't think they are not drinking, do you?

COPPLE: No. I don't they are not drinking. I think they are drinking.

GIBSON: All right. So, we're just talking about making it legal for them.

COPPLE: No. I think the fact is, is the military has placed information and training and restrictions and controls related to force readiness. They don't want people coming in hung over and expect to drive heavy equipment. They're very concerned...


GIBSON: Hey, Mark Pettis, is this passing or not?


PETTIS: No. We have restrictions. But I hope it does. And I hope every state tries to do it. Now, this is just dealing with the state of Wisconsin.


COPPLE: Which has a $1.2 billion underage drinking problem in Wisconsin. You rank 29th among the 50 states in underage drinking problems.

GIBSON: Mr. Pettis, you get last word. I've got to run. Take it.

PETTIS: All right. Well, you know, it's just all about allowing these people to go into a bar, not even to have a drink, just to go in and have camaraderie and fellowship with their soldiers that are 21.

GIBSON: Mark Pettis, Wisconsin representative, Jim Copple, thanks to both of you. Appreciate it.

COPPLE: Thank you.

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