Teens on Pacific U.S. military bases have no problem getting alcohol, say counselors, commanders and security personnel.

Almost-nonexistent off-base identification checks, raucous party areas, beer machines on the streets and parental apathy all contribute to the problem, the officials said.

Since Jan. 1, Marine officials on Okinawa have busted 200 percent more family members for underage drinking than last year. And, officials there said, many of the 29 teens they’ve caught this year are drinking hard alcohol instead of the traditional choice of beer.

“We can’t provide an absolute reason for the upward spike,” Col. Michael A. Dryer, base inspector, Butler Marine Corps Base, said in a written statement. “However, experimentation and modeling” behavior observed in parents “rise to the top of that list.”

How do they get it?

Officials say kids take advantage of language barriers, lax ID-card checks and cultural differences in the quest to get drunk. Facial hair or makeup, for example, can help them look older than local Japanese or South Korean youth.

“We have 12- to 14-year-olds that look like they’re 20 or 21 when they’re dressed up and decked out,” said Lt. Col. Denis P. Delaney, 18th Mission Support Group deputy commander and head of the Kadena Disciplinary Action Program that deals with civilian or family member misconduct.

Heidi Masuda, drug and alcohol counselor at Zama American High School, agreed, saying, “I think American kids look older than Japanese kids. They dress more maturely.”

According to a Kubasaki High School student who wished to remain anonymous, students share with one another specifics on alcohol consumption on Okinawa.

“They’ll tell kids where to go [to purchase alcohol] in town, and they even know how much it costs,” the student said.

Some of those who drink also sneak out and go to clubs in areas that don’t check identification, the student said. Even though there is a midnight curfew for teenagers on the weekends on Okinawa, the student said those who stay out late clubbing still manage to get back on base.

In South Korea a few weeks ago, Seoul American High School Principal Keith Henson and 34th Support Group commander Col. Timothy McNulty visited about eight bars in the Itaewon entertainment area, about one mile from Yongsan Garrison and close to Hannam Village, a family military housing facility.

At one, they surprised two 15-year-old high school students, who were given community service as punishment. Henson said it wasn’t clear if the two were drinking, but the incident highlighted easy access students have to bars, especially in South Korea, where the legal drinking age is 19.

Many counselors said they find it even more disturbing that some students are getting alcohol from their parents.

“Kids tell me their parents ‘let me drink at home so they can monitor it,’” said Diana Pattillo, an Alcohol Substance Abuse Counseling Service counselor at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Parents may think, “‘If I don’t make a big deal out of it, they’ll stop it,’” she said.

Carol Schubeck, the Adolescent Substance Abuse Counselor at Kadena High School, said some parents on Okinawa minimize the seriousness of the problem by “saying it’s ‘just alcohol’” and letting them drink at home.

“Some parents have the idea that if their child drinks at home, then they won’t drink outside of the home,” Schubeck said. “That’s a fallacy.”

Pattillo said parents might think drinking isn’t a problem at Misawa because few kids there are getting caught. “They’re not drinking and getting into fights, they’re not coming to school drunk,” she said. “Kids have told me that parents have told them, ‘They don’t care if I drink as long as I don’t get into trouble.’ And parents have said to me that, ‘All kids experiment.’”

She said she urges parents to take off the blinders.

“When kids get a very clear message from their parents that this is not OK, you don’t have as much of a problem,” she said.

“When kids drink at a young age, their possibility of having a drinking problem as an adult is four times higher,” said Masuda.

They also have problems with emotional development, self-esteem and social skills, said Donna Nicosia, who heads Camp Zama’s Army Substance Abuse Program and the Employee Assistance Program.

What can parents do?

Gunnery Sgt. Ken Reynolds and his wife Teresa had two children attend Kubasaki High. One child never dabbled with alcohol for fear of getting the entire family in trouble, the parents said.

But Teresa said she knew that many kids go to friends’ houses to drink, because their parents don’t mind — which is what happened with one of her teens.

“It happens when kids are around bad influences,” she said. “They go over to these kids’ houses whose parents allow them to drink.”

The best prevention, Nicosia said, is keeping an eye on teens: Talk to them, spend time with them, look at their friends and ask questions.

Parents can ask teachers and counselors if they’ve noticed a change in behavior, she said, stressing that all base prevention and treatment programs are free and confidential.

Ken and Teresa Reynolds said their key to keeping kids away from alcohol is being honest and open.

“We’re open in our house,” said Teresa. “We have family discussions where we discuss things like drinking and smoking, so nothing happens. A lot of kids drink and smoke because the parents don’t enforce the issue that they shouldn’t. I think parents just need to be more involved in their kids’ lives.”

Masuda said that by the time the symptoms of drinking are apparent — such as slipping grades or poor health — the problem is far along.

Parents should look for changes in their teens, such as suddenly acquiring new friends — especially those they won’t introduce to parents — or eating breath mints and carrying eye drops, which can hide the effects of drug and alcohol use, counselors said. Parents with any doubt, they said, shouldn’t store alcohol in the house.

“The biggest influence in any community is parent involvement,” said Carol Czerw, principal at Osan American High School at Osan Air Base, South Korea. Parents are “in here all the time,” she said. “In a very small community there are no secrets … when you have the kind of parental support we have here, you have many, many fewer problems.”

Navy Lt. Arwen Consaul, a Navy spokeswoman for Naval Forces Marianas on Guam, said the drinking age there is 18. “Off base, alcohol seems to be more readily available,” she said. “There are parties and fiestas and, for the most part, they don’t card teens. You can see teens as young as 15 or 16 drinking alcohol, although some parties are trying to instill ID checking.”

On base, Consaul said, conditions are much different.

“With the security and visible patrols, people are more prone to take action when they see someone underage drinking,” she said. “But I have to say that there isn’t a high underage drinking rate because the base and the local community is a close-knit family.”

The Reynolds parents said they’re sure teenagers know where to go to get alcohol and they pass the information along to one another. Stores off base many times don’t care who is buying the alcohol, they said, they just want to make their money.

“It just snowballs,” Teresa said, “they know where to go.”

Not getting caught

Officials at bases with low incident rates don’t pretend kids aren’t drinking. Rather, they said, if it’s going on, it hasn’t reached a level where it’s come to the notice of authorities.

“To assume that nothing is going on is just a tad naive,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Kifer, commander of Osan’s 51st Security Forces Squadron.

But neither the squadron’s off-base “town patrol” nor security forces have any record of on-base drinking incidents involving teens.

Principal Czerw acknowledges that in the area, generally, “there’s every opportunity for kids to have alcohol.”

But, she and other school officials said, underage drinking has yet to come to their notice, on or off school grounds. The school has 291 teens enrolled.

“We have not had any incidents,” said Czerw. “We’re very fortunate here in Osan … and I can tell you the stats are zero, in my two years here anyway.”

Finding help

Base officials stressed that many routes exist for teens seeking help, from school counselors to teen centers to self-help programs.

To help combat the rising number of young drinkers on Okinawa, both Delaney and Schubeck said they are trying to educate families on the dangers of drinking. Delaney said he talks at all briefings for newcomers and 4th- through 12th-grade classes to make the base’s stance clear.

Schubeck holds training ranging from classroom education for students to Parenting-a-Teen classes for the adults.

She said she works to help parents understand how to give their teens more freedom “but still keep them on a leash. But parents are very reluctant to seek help because they are afraid of what it will do to their career.”

Through a program called Smart Moves, personnel with Yokota’s 374th Medical Group talk to teens about handling peer pressure and life choices. The group also runs Alcohol Drug Abuse Prevention Treatment, an inpatient and outpatient treatment program.

At Seoul American High, Principal Henson said the school relies on talking with students to ensure they know they are to stay out of bars if they are underage. The point was reinforced at an assembly last week to about 300 freshmen and sophomores.

By this fall, Seoul American plans to include a briefing on the dangers of alcohol and rules of bar entry, Henson said.


Punishment for teen drinking ranges from community service to revocation of status of forces agreement privileges, usually meaning the teen must leave the country.

On Okinawa, Delaney targets both the teens and the parents. He has each violator write an essay on drug-use prevention.

Teens, Delaney said, need to realize “they’ve broken a law, so they’re going to do something to repay the community. If I put it in the back of their minds and they know there are consequences out there, then hopefully, we’ll get them going in the right direction.”

But he also has the parents write a letter saying how they will prevent such incidents from recurring. Those letters “make the parents be held more accountable. I want to make sure they know what’s going on,” Delaney said.

— Juliana Gittler, Joseph Giordono, Greg Tyler, Jennifer Svan, Jeremy Kirk and Franklin Fisher contributed to this report.

Bases report statistics

A Pacificwide query showed some bases actively track incidents of underage drinking. These include:

• Marine Corps Bases Butler on Okinawa: Since January, Officials have caught 29 teens drinking underage.

• Kadena Air Base, Okinawa: Five teens caught since Jan. 1.

• Camp Zama, Japan: Counselors are working with eight teens — from Camp Zama and Atsugi Naval Air Facility — who reported drinking in the last month.

• Misawa Air Base, Japan: Ninety-one of almost 500 7th- to 12th-graders who took an anonymous survey this year reported they drink.

• Yokota Air Base, Japan: A “number of youth” are undergoing disciplinary action, and the issue “does remain a steady problem throughout the year.”

• South Korea: About 65 youths considered “at-risk” are involved in a preventative or treatment program.

• Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan: Eleven teens caught this year.

Officials at others bases were unable to provide data, saying that while underage drinking exists in their areas, they wouldn’t qualify it as problematic.

— Staff reports

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