YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Senior enlisted advisers from all service branches in South Korea recommended raising the drinking age for all servicemembers and civilians here based in part on problems with sexual assault, the top U.S. enlisted leader in South Korea said Friday.

Raising the drinking age from 20 to 21 can help reduce sexual assaults, since most of the reports in South Korea involve alcohol, said U.S. Forces Korea Command Sgt. Maj. Troy Welch, speaking on his monthly “From the Top” radio call-in program.

The move went into effect Nov. 1.

“We took a hard look, then took this to [U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Leon LaPorte], and said, ‘Sir, we want to get this done,’” Welch said.

Part of the rationale, Welch said, is that many of the sexual assault incidents occur between younger servicemembers, and some victims were reluctant to report the offenses because “they were maybe underage drinking at the time.”

Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered a task force to look at the department’s sexual-assault policy and victim treatment after the Denver Post reported in January that 37 female servicemembers sought civilian agency sexual-assault counseling after returning from combat zones.

In South Korea, LaPorte established a Sexual Assault Working Group in March “to look at all aspects of sexual assault as it may occur both on and off base throughout the peninsula,” USFK officials said in June.

According to the Defense Department, 701 rape cases were reported in 2002 throughout the military. The Army reported 196 cases; the Air Force, 234 cases; the Navy and Marines, 271 cases combined.

USFK reported 81 sexual assaults in 2001; 65 in 2002; and 86 in 2003. Officials noted that the definitions of sexual assault during these years were not standardized throughout the services.

On Friday’s program, Welch acknowledged the legal drinking age off-base in South Korea is 20. But, he said, commands throughout the peninsula are working with local establishments in the hopes they will comply with the new USFK rules.

“If you’re not checking IDs,” Welch said about off-base club owners, “we’ll put you off-limits. Area commanders will have to work through it to get local establishments to help us out and not serve alcohol to anyone under 21.”

Welch also touched on the argument made by some soldiers who say they’re old enough to serve and fight for their country, but not to drink.

“I don’t equate alcohol as to being an adult,” he said. “If you relate being able to drink alcohol to being an adult, we have some programs that you might want to visit.”

On other issues, Welch said he visited wounded 2nd Brigade Combat Team soldiers on a recent trip to Washington. In communicating with 2 BCT soldiers in Iraq, “their spirits are good,” he said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now