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A smashed-up car was placed in front of the “DUI Hitboard” near the main gate at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Friday as a reminder of the potential consequences of drinking and driving.

A smashed-up car was placed in front of the “DUI Hitboard” near the main gate at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Friday as a reminder of the potential consequences of drinking and driving. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — After a spate of recent drinking-and-driving incidents, base leadership here is pulling out all the stops — short of harsher punishments or restrictions — to get airmen to reverse the trend.

Brig. Gen. Sam Angelella, 35th Fighter Wing commander, told American Forces Network radio listeners Friday morning he’s concerned about the weekend, given that July 3-4 in the United States typically is the year’s worst for traffic deaths.

The base has had six DUIs in the past three weeks — including three last weekend — bringing the year’s total to 17, one more than this time last year.

“It’s just unacceptable,” Angelella said. “I’m very concerned that a drunk driver is going to kill someone at Misawa — either someone else or themselves.”

He said on the air he’s met with commanders, first sergeants and chiefs “to come up with creative ways to knock off the behavior.” The base newspaper reported Friday that ideas discussed at a leadership meeting earlier in the week included curfews, increasing the DUI checkpoints, banning alcohol in dormitories and making bars off-limits during early morning hours.

But, Angelella said, “What I’m hoping is after this weekend we’re not going to have to give any punishment out, that we’re going to be able to reward everyone for not drinking and driving.”

Extra perks won’t be handed out for a DUI-free weekend, he said, but he’ll continue giving DUI-free units a day off each month if mission goals are met.

“I don’t want to reward behavior that is expected,” he said, “but … recognizing accomplishing the mission in an excellent manner, we’ll take a monthly goal day off.”

And what if the weekend isn’t without a DUI?

“We’re going to leave that up to the group commanders,” Angelella said. “If a group commander administers punishment for misbehavior, it has a little bigger effect than if a squadron commander administers it. I can’t tell a commander what kind of punishment to give — because that would be undue command influence — but everyone knows how important it is to me. They have all pledged to get the word out.”

A DUI at Misawa automatically results in a year’s loss of base driving privileges and can include the loss of a stripe, financial penalties and, in more serious cases, a summary court-martial with a maximum punishment of 30 days in jail. A blood-alcohol-content of 0.03, Japan’s legal intoxication level, also is the legal threshold on base, officials said.

Some airmen said they think the stakes need to be even higher.

“Whatever there is now, it obviously isn’t working,” said Staff Sgt. Damon Smith, 26. “There needs to be a harsher deterrent.”

He said he’d like to see servicemembers’ legal drinking age raised to 21, as in the States. The legal drinking age in Japan is 20.

“When someone gets a DUI, it brings down the whole squadron,” Smith said. “It’s a real selfish thing to do.”

Staff Sgt. Charles Jackson, an aerospace propulsion specialist with the 14th Fighter Squadron, said there’s no excuse for a DUI because airmen constantly are reminded of the consequences and are told the options available to get a ride home.

If anyone from the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron gets a DUI, the whole unit must appear the next morning in front of the commander in full service dress, he noted.

“There’s only so much you can do,” Jackson said. “I guess the next step is a dry spell for everybody.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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