Have a beer, Marine


By lex, on May 26th, 2007

I grew up in Virginia during a time when the federal government had something of a laissez-faire attitude towards state laws on the sale of alcohol, at least with regards to the age of consumption. The Old Dominion permitted residents the taste of a beer at age 18, and strong spirits at age 21, unless we troubled ourselves to drive across into Washington, D.C. where both were to be had for the asking at 18.

The move to regularize the law across state borders through coercive language in federal highway funds is probably on balance a good thing – who knows how many teenage lives have been lost over the years driving back from a more permissive neighboring state or county. And even the counter-argument that a eighteen year old who really wants to get a beer will find a way to get one regardless of the statutes does not mean that we, as a society, must necessarily endorse that decision.

I was just a wee nobbut during the Vietnam war, but I remember distinctly being on a trip with my father one summer, I think it was down in Texas. We were at an airport bar with my parents when a wounded soldier hobbled up to the bartender on crutches and asked for a beer. The bartender turned the kid down – at 19, he was apparently too young to drink in that part of Texas in 1969.

My dad – part of the greatest generation, and a merchant sailor who had navigated the treacherous Murmansk Run on many occasions – walked up to the bartender, leaned up close to him and whispered into his ear. As my father’s son, I recognized the body language and knew that the bartender was “enjoying” a brief but exciting conversation with the old man.

When my dad got back to the table, my mom asked him what he’d said. He replied that any man who had the courage to answer his country’s call to duty, serve in a combat zone at risk of life and limb, kill for his country and maybe get killed right back and come back home after all of that wounded had better damned well be able to buy a beer when he wants one.

What did he say, my mom asked.

He said that this county had a law and he could lose his license, my dad replied. I told him to sell me the beer and look the other way, but if that soldier didn’t get his beer he’d stand to lose more than just his license. The long and the short of it was that the young soldier got to rest his crutches by the bar, and got to drink his beer.

Which is maybe on reason why I’m disinclined to tut-tut over the notion of the Marine Corps easing the regs a bit and allowing “underage” Marines the chance to drink a celebratory beer on special occasions, such as returning from a combat zone, or on the Corps’ birthday. And it surprised me to discover that, unlike the Sailors who are forced to carry them around from port to port, it wasn’t until recently that under-21 Marines were permitted an adult beverage in a foreign port whose national laws would have otherwise permitted it.

There’s nothing inherently glamorous about alcohol or drinking, but neither is their anything inherently awful about a man who’s trusted to hoist a rifle in his country’s service and make life or death decisions while doing so hoisting a malted beverage under controlled circumstances. Warriors have been doing so for a number of years, as I believe.

Faced with the sourly inevitable disapproval of the professionally teetotling and personally abstemious class, it would have probably been a little easier on Marine Corps leadership to “just say no” and rest on the status quo. Hat’s off to the Corps for doing the right thing.


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