Misawa officials urge drinking airmen to use free ride program less
December 8, 2009
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Base leaders say they want fewer airmen to use a volunteer program offering free rides home after they’ve been drinking alcohol, as counterintuitive as it may seem.
Instead, community members should develop a plan for "responsible drinking" and stick to it, said 35th Fighter Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Russell Hastings, who assumed his post in June. Instead of relying on volunteers to get them home, they should use designated drivers, take taxis or even walk, he said.
To emphasize the major shift in philosophy, the Misawa Community and Services Against Drunk Driving organization, called McSADD, is being replaced by what volunteers voted to call Americans Against Drunk Driving, or A2D2.
While the volunteers will still provide free, anonymous rides to help keep drunken drivers off the roads, they want to do it as a last resort and hope to see a substantial decrease in customers.
The shift is part of a bigger push to curb drinking problems at the remote base, on the northern tip of the main island of Japan. A series of drinking-related incidents earlier this year prompted base commander Col. David Stilwell to enforce stricter liberty standards and begin doling out punishment to offenders personally.
And since he’s been here, Hastings has overseen a change to the town patrol program and the creation of a new Responsible Drinking Working Group that meets monthly to discuss irresponsible drinking and ways to address it in the community.
He said too many people were using McSADD as their "primary means of transportation" for evenings that involved drinking.
Through November, "they had given over 1,600 rides," Hastings said. "That’s too many."
This sort of program should be used only as a last resort, he said.
He said another major shift in the program is that the volunteers are going to be required to drive their own cars and pay for their own gas. The McSADD program used an official, nonappropriated funds vehicle, which is against Air Force regulations, he said.
"I don’t want it to be a way to get from the club to the front gate so you can walk downtown, which is what a lot of the … people used it for," he said.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Strom was the 35th Medical Group’s McSADD coordinator and is now the president of A2D2. He said now that they’re not using the official vehicle, it’s been more difficult to get volunteers. But, he said, he’s sure that as the A2D2 program becomes fully operational in the next few weeks, things will smooth out.
Both Hastings and Strom admitted that the change could make people nervous about calling for a ride when needed, something they don’t want to happen.
"I don’t want to push people away to where they’re afraid to use it, because then we risk having people driving under the influence again," Hastings said. "But I just can’t let it go on like it was … that’s not what the program is for."
Strom said that the volunteers aren’t watching for repeat riders and wouldn’t report it up the chain if it happened. But he wants people to use the program as it was intended.
"Don’t abuse us," he said.
Hastings said he hopes the message gets out quickly, because "we’re just trying to get people to change their mindset here at Misawa."
The change to the town patrol program — in which senior enlisted and officers walk through the party area in uniform — made sense, Hastings said. They were patrolling from 10 p.m. to midnight, while many of the bars stay open all night. They now hit the streets between midnight and 4 a.m.
The command has also tasked mid-level supervisors to get more involved with their troops, going as far as changing the sponsorship policy at the base.
Since September, sponsors must either be NCOs or senior airmen who’ve attended a leadership course.
"We’re not preaching abstinence here," Hastings said."I drink. I want people to have a good time, but I want people to understand what it means to drink responsibly."