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YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Attention all 20-year-olds: Unless your next birthday comes by Monday, you’ll have to wait as long as a year before you can drink alcohol on or off base in South Korea.

Starting Monday, U.S. Forces Korea will raise to 21 the legal drinking age for all military personnel, contract workers, civilians and family members assigned to USFK, according to an announcement issued Wednesday.

USFK officials said this change would apply to personnel off-base as well, although the legal drinking age in South Korea is 20.

How U.S. officials would enforce the new drinking age off base was unclear Wednesday, but officials said offenders could face action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Those not subject to the UCMJ “could, as a minimum, have their privileges revoked,” the release read.

“There is no good justification why the drinking age here should be different than it is in the U.S.,” Col. MaryAnn Cummings, USFK spokeswoman, said in the statement. “An assignment or employment opportunity in Korea should not give special privileges with respect to alcohol over those in the states.”

The change comes as command leaders face increasing concerns about the number of alcohol-related incidents involving younger troops, the USFK statement said.

“With the drinking age raised to 21, we want to reduce the number of alcohol-related incidents,” said Lt. Col. Howard Hunt, USFK chief of law enforcement. “Historically, a high percentage of alcohol-related offenses are committed by 18- to 20-year-olds, particularly as they relate to crimes against persons.”

The move is not without precedent.

At Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Japan, the base commander made a similar change in January, requesting off-base establishments to enforce a drinking age of 21 for base personnel. The Japanese legal drinking age also is 20.

The change was made in hopes of reducing off-base alcohol-related incidents involving younger Marines. But the change did not affect all servicemembers in Japan because it was not a U.S. Forces Japan- wide decision.

The legal drinking age limit for servicemembers in Japan and Okinawa is established by USFJ component commands, according to Air Force 2nd Lt. Ben Sakrisson, a USFJ spokesman.

“It’s not dictated by USFJ to the service components,” he said, “so there’s not a standard limit for all of USFJ. It’s left up to each of the service branches around Japan.”

The same holds for all servicemembers stationed worldwide.

A 1995 Defense Department regulation states: “The minimum drinking age on a DoD installation located outside the United States shall be 18 years of age. Higher minimum drinking age will be based on international treaties and agreements and on the local situation as determined by the local installation commander.”

Because USFK made the decision in South Korea, it will affect all troops throughout the peninsula.

Some soldiers in South Korea reacted negatively.

At Camp Red Cloud, 122nd Signal Battalion soldier Pvt. Mason Radcliff, 18, of Pratt- ville, Ala., said Wednesday that raising the drinking age is not a good idea.

“I think if you are in the military you ought to be able to drink, period. You are an adult and I think adults should be able to drink,” he said.

Young U.S. soldiers can die for their country but some are not allowed to have a beer, he said. “You ought to be able to drink when you are old enough to be sent over here and to do everything else but drink.”

Plenty of responsibilities are entrusted to 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds, Radcliff said. “You can go to prison. In Alabama you can drive a motorcycle at 14. You can drive a car at 16. A lot of 16-year-olds have car accidents but they don’t raise the driving age,” he said.

However, the young soldier said, he would follow the new regulation, as the Army must have a reason for raising the drinking age. “I guess they don’t think an 18-year-old is responsible enough to drink,” he said.

Not all young soldiers are unhappy about the change in the drinking age.

Pfc. Jeffery Lockwood, 19, said he couldn’t care less.

“I don’t drink, at all, so it doesn’t really affect me. I have been here a whole year without any drinking at all,” said Lockwood, a New Orleans native who was training for his Expert Field Medical Badge at Warrior Base, near the DMZ, on Wednesday.

“The American standard is 21,” he said. Lockwood said he intends to drink socially when he is old enough.

Bar owners in Itaewon appeared distressed at the news.

“The new alcohol-permit-age rule definitely will affect our club business negatively,” said Yu Won-soon, who heads the Itaewon bar association and owns Twilight Zone.

News of the change could slow Yu’s business and even force him to close his doors, he said Wednesday; most of his customers are younger troops.

Yu said the age change was another piece of bad news for Itaewon merchants. He expects business to dwindle as the United States proceeds with plans to move Yongsan Garrison operations in Seoul to Pyongtaek over the next few years.

Yu also said checking the age of younger soldiers can be challenging. Sometimes asking for IDs can prompt angry responses from the servicemembers, he said.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department released a survey saying heavy drinking — five or more drinks per occasion at least once a week — was up among servicemembers, from 15.4 percent in 1998 to 18.1 percent in 2002.

Of the 12,500 active-duty servicemembers surveyed in 2002, younger members reported the heaviest alcohol use. One of four respondents ages 18 to 25 admitted heavy alcohol use, almost double the rate among civilians in the same group, the American Forces Press Service reported earlier this year.

Seth Robson, Vince Little and Hwang Hae-rym contributed to this report.


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