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Spc. Joseph Carter, left, is the designated driver for Spc. Christopher Bucknell and other members of the Darmstadt, Germany-based 578th Signal Company, on a recent night on the town.
Spc. Joseph Carter, left, is the designated driver for Spc. Christopher Bucknell and other members of the Darmstadt, Germany-based 578th Signal Company, on a recent night on the town. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

A soldier held the stage, Pearl Jam in his voice and big acoustic strums rippling golden from his guitar. He and his buddy then tried out “La Bamba.” The baseball caps in the audience nodded along to the music.

A guy with a bagpipe would be next.

The recent jam session at the An Sibin pub in Darmstadt, Germany, isn’t unique to that festive stretch of late December staggering toward New Year’s Eve. But the swell of the crowd and its American accent implied that holiday season is indeed party season.

The military is advising troops to be safe during the holidays and to stay away from the driver’s wheel, regardless of how few eggnogs they’ve had.

Though it’s unclear yet how rowdy this year’s holiday season will be, the biggest U.S. military community in Europe reports a 44 percent increase in drunken driving for the entire year compared with 2003. And the year’s biggest night has yet to pop.

To stop trends like this, many bases offer programs to get troops home from the party in one piece.

“Don’t risk ruining your holidays, your career or even your life over a drink. It’s just not worth it,” Patrick T. Teel, chief of Army Substance Abuse Program Europe, said in a prepared statement.

“Plan ahead and identify a designated driver or a means of public transportation if you plan to drink alcohol. Trying to guess ‘how much’ will be ‘too much’ is very dangerous because even one drink affects your judgment and your ability to make that decision. It’s better not to drink alcohol at all if you’re going to be driving. Be smart about alcohol and don’t drink and drive.”

The Army recorded 17 cases of drunken driving arrests last holiday season — Dec. 24 through Jan. 1 — compared with 37 the year prior to that. There were 23 during the 2001 holiday season and 32 at the millennium, according to the Army’s Installation Management Agency-Europe.

The Navy reported a total of 12 cases of drunken driving over the past three holiday seasons in Europe, but numbers for individual years weren’t available. Air Force figures weren’t available because the service only logs them at individual bases, said Maj. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe.

One place that’s seen a big spike over the entire year is the Kaiserslautern, Germany, area — the biggest American military community on the continent — which has logged at least 198 cases of driving under the influence this year. That’s a 44 percent increase over 2003, according to Ramstein Air Base. The culprits in the 198 cases are split almost evenly between Army and Air Force personnel.

The military wants to fight this. Individual commands often promote designated-driver programs or offer taxi programs for nights out on the town.

“We always have a designated driver with us, or we’ll take a taxi,” said Spc. Joseph Carter, who took in the Pearl Jam-ness and bagpipes at the pub session. Carter was the driver that night.

“We have another guy, too — we just drink Coke or whatever. And definitely, if someone tries to drive home, we definitely take the keys from them.”

Their command also keeps a taxi fund, the troops say.

“You make a phone call, and the battalion pays for you,” said Spc. Christopher Bucknell. Troops have to pay it back in 24 hours.

The programs aren’t unique to one place or service. In Naples, Italy, sailors can use a service called “Tipsy Taxi” sponsored by the Chief Petty Officers Association. Through Jan. 7, a “Tipsy” representative will meet a sailor at the gate to pay for a cab.

In Gaeta, Italy, the Navy calls it “Drive Alive,” and it runs through Jan. 3.

“It’s confidential,” said Lt. Cmdr. Lisa Braun, spokeswoman for Navy Region Europe. “They don’t ask questions.”

The troops in the pub said that for them and their 578th Signal Company, such programs seem to be fighting drunken driving.

“I’ve been here two years,” Carter said, “and we’ve only had only incident.”

Ben Murray in Kaiserslautern, Germany, contributed to this report.

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