FORT BLISS, Texas – This military base in the far West Texas desert stood as the last Army post in America where if you were old enough to fight and die for your country, you were old enough to drink a beer.
But the party is over at Fort Bliss.
Citing too many drunken-driving crashes and arrests and too many fights, the new commanding general has raised the drinking age on base from 18 to 21, bringing 17,000-soldier Fort Bliss into line with what has been the law in the rest of Texas since 1986.
And not only that, but all Fort Bliss soldiers are barred from slipping across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juarez, the city of famously loose morals where young Americans have been getting drunk — and getting into trouble — for generations. From now on, no passes to Juarez will be issued.
The new policy took effect May 22.
Pfc. Walter Iverson, a babyfaced 19-year-old, said he will miss grabbing a beer after work: “It’s like my parents say, I’m old enough to join the Army, but I’m not old enough to drink.”
“I don’t know why they changed it. I never had a problem with drinking,” he said. A few guys “ruined it for everyone.”
Other Army bases around the country raised their drinking age to 21 over the past 20 years or so. Many states went to 21 under federal pressure beginning in the mid-1980s, and 21 is now the law in all 50 states.
For the past 28 years, however, Fort Bliss let young soldiers drink. For most of that period, it was peacetime, and things were calm on base. Also, commanders figured that letting soldier drinks at the base club would discourage them from going to Juarez.
But now units are routinely shipping back and forth to Iraq and Afghanistan, and base officials say young men and women have been using alcohol to blow off steam — too much steam.
Maj. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, who took over in January, cracked down after a review of base crime statistics showed that in late 2007 and early 2008, sexual assaults, domestic violence and traffic accidents by soldiers 18, 19 or 20 involved alcohol more often than not.
Before the war, “we didn’t have a large number of incidents involving younger soldiers,” said Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt. “We weren’t in a wartime situation, which made for a difference in behavior upon returning.”
One combat veteran said that is all the more reason the soldiers deserve a drink.
“They are under a lot of pressure when they come back from wars,” said 71-year-old Navy veteran Ramon Segura, commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post just outside the 17,000-soldier Fort Bliss. “I just don’t think that at the post that it should be 21.”
The way Segura sees it, post bars could easily serve underage soldiers low-alcohol beer and make sure that they stay at Fort Bliss after drinking.
Pvt. Katie Perkovich, who turned 21 in January, said that when she was underage, she liked the safety of being able to have a few beers, bowl at the base bowling alley and walk home.
Pvt. Aaron Clark, also 21, the new policy is good news. “I think it’s for the best,” he said. “Most of the accidents were with drinkers under 21.”