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Navy to step up Breathalyzer tests of sailors

The Navy soon will begin giving Breathalyzer tests to many of its sailors before they report to work aboard a ship under a new program that will spread to the Marine Corps later this year.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the plan Monday during a rare "all hands" call from aboard the USS Bataan at Naval Station Norfolk.

Mabus' comments were broadcast to sailors and Marines worldwide, who were able to submit questions to him via email and each service's Facebook page. During the question and answer session, Mabus was not asked about the Breathalyzer tests, which are already in use aboard submarines in the Pacific Northwest.

The Marine Corps will begin a similar pilot program in April for four of its units, including one at the presidential retreat at Camp David. Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of Marine Corps Forces Command, said the program would expand to the rest of the force after that initial six-month pilot program.

Hejlik said it is important to identify Marines who may have an alcohol problem early on so that their careers aren't hampered and, more importantly, that they don't put other Marines at risk.

Details of the Navy program are still being worked out, but not every sailor who walks onto a ship will be given a Breathalyzer test. Navy officials estimate that between one sixth and one eighth of a ship's crew will be given the test, which will target those standing watch and overseeing important aspects of a ship, such as its nuclear reactors. Other sailors may be tested at random.

The Navy is setting aside $8 million to begin the program and anticipates spending $2 million to keep it going.

Mabus said sailors who are found to have been using alcohol before reporting to work won't necessarily be punished, but the tests will be used as a way to help identify sailors in need of treatment and to serve as a deterrent for those considering drinking heavily the night before a shift.

"We're not telling you not to drink if you're old enough," Mabus said. "We are telling you that it's important to keep legal, responsible use of alcohol from turning into a problem. Your jobs and your lives are too important."

The tests are part of Mabus' 21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative, an expansive program intended to improve the well-being of sailors and Marines after more than a decade at war.

With the Pentagon shifting its focus toward the Pacific, there's no sign of the operational pace for either service slowing down. Mabus says service members need to be able to handle the physical and emotional rigors of military service.

"We've got a new defense strategy that says that there's gonna be a lot of responsibilities assigned to the Navy and Marine Corps," he told reporters.

The amphibious assault ship that he chose as the setting for his speech was significant. The Bataan recently returned to its homeport in Norfolk after a more than 10-month deployment, the longest for a Navy ship in nearly 40 years.

Mabus' initiative covers several well-being issues, but he didn't hesitate in emphasizing the importance of addressing alcohol abuse. He said that it is an issue affecting all levels of service, with 13 of 20 recent commanding officer firings involving alcohol in some aspect. He also noted that alcohol frequently plays a factor in sexual assaults and suicides, which his initiative also attempts to address.

Among other things, sailors also will be given random drug tests to check for the use of synthetic marijuana, which the military prohibits its members from using. Many states also outlaw synthetic drugs. Sailors caught using synthetic drugs through the urine tests will be prosecuted under military law.

Sailors and Marines will also no longer be able to purchase cigarettes at reduced prices from Navy and Marine stores known as exchanges. Typically, cigarettes on base are sold for 5 percent less than the price in their surrounding communities. Mabus said it didn't make sense for the services to be subsidizing smoking when it is trying to get Marines and sailors to quit the habit for their health.

To that end, Mabus said the Navy would pay for sailors to take part In smoking cessation programs.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the Marine Corps Exchange reported nearly $41 million in cigarette sales. The Navy could not immediately provide estimates on cigarette sales, but noted that in the past year, there were $144 million in tobacco-related sales, which includes cigarettes, cigars and lighters, among other items.

Mabus told reporters following his speech that there are no plans to stop cigarette sales completely.

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Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis

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