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Bottles of soju on sale at a convenience store outside Osan Air Base in South Korea.

Bottles of soju on sale at a convenience store outside Osan Air Base in South Korea. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Soju, the potent liquor sometimes called Korean vodka, was banned here Tuesday from servicemembers’ dorms.

The ban will apply to the 3,800 airmen and soldiers living in dorms at this fighter base.

The action comes after a spate of recent incidents in which servicemembers suffered health problems believed to be at least partly related to soju.

Two servicemembers this weekend had to be taken to the base emergency room because of the effects of heavy drinking, base officials said. It’s believed soju, which is known for its stealthy, sneak-punch effects on drinkers, was among the types of alcohol the two were drinking.

"This is counter to good order and discipline, and does not ensure that we’re ‘Ready to Fight Tonight,’ which is our mission," Air Force Col. Jon A. Norman, commander of Osan’s 51st Fighter Wing, told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.

Norman said he wants to reduce the chances that troops in the dorms "behind closed doors" might drink too much, especially if there aren’t reliable companions present.

Soju is a growing concern, Norman said. The same factors that make the popular liquor easy to consume — it’s cheap, tasteless and odorless — also make it dangerous, he said.

"Before they know it, they’ve gone beyond the stage of just being a little bit drunk and they’re extremely intoxicated," Norman said. "If people choose to drink and they’re legal to do it, I think that’s fine. But they need to do that responsibly. It takes a good ‘battle buddy’ and a good ‘wingman’ to watch out for each other."

Norman said he’d issue the ban in the form of a policy letter he would sign Tuesday night that would take effect immediately.

Troops of legal drinking age will still be able to bring soju on base, but will be forbidden to have it in the dorms, Norman said in an interview late Tuesday.

Soju is not sold on base.

But off base Tuesday, it was for sale at a convenience store just outside Osan’s main gate. And soju in large plastic bottles was prominently displayed in racks at the sales counter, at 4,500 won a bottle (about $4.50). Smaller bottles were available in the store’s chilled beverage section, selling for 1,350 won (about $1.35) and 2,300 won (about $2.30).

"Yes, they can buy it, they can bring it to a planned event at one of their pavilions, but my assumption is that there’ll be other people around that’ll help them make the right decision," Norman said.

Norman will leave it to unit commanders to decide what consequences to impose should anyone be found violating the policy, he said.


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