Alaska is the latest state to weigh in on a long-running argument: If you're old enough to fight and die for your country, you should be old enough to drink a beer.
An Alaska lawmaker who served in Vietnam is pushing a bill that would allow active-duty service members under 21 to drink alcohol as long as they could produce an armed forces identification card. Those under 19 Alaska's smoking age would be allowed to buy tobacco products.
"It's not fair that one guy in a fox hole can go home and have a beer while another guy in the fox hole can't," said Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage. "It's not about drinking, it's not about smoking, it's about equality. If you get shot at, you can have a shot."
But Lynn's bill has received a cool reception from the state's armed forces commanders, who worry it would encourage unhealthy behavior in a military that wants to reduce smoking and curb drinking.
And if the bill passes, the state stands to lose at least $17 million in federal highway funding, state transportation officials say, because Alaska would be in violation of the national minimum drinking age statute. In a state where alcohol abuse is blamed for many social and financial ills, a lower drinking age is a distinction few want.
"It sends a mixed message. For some it's OK, for others it's not," said Royal Bidwell, business manager of the Forget Me Not Foundation, an anti-drunken driving group based in Wasilla.
The law could set a precedent, said Rep. Alan Austerman, R-Kodiak, where any young person whose profession puts them at risk of losing their life, such as police or firefighters, could be allowed to drink.
Kentucky, South Carolina and Wisconsin have all considered similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, but nothing has ever come into law. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Georgia, proposed a similar measure last year that ultimately died in committee.
About 2,000 soldiers under age 21 serve in the Army in Alaska, said Maj. Bill Coppernoll, public affairs officer for U.S. Army Alaska. Federal law prohibits them from drinking on base.
Alcohol is involved in a third of misconduct incidents on Alaska's military installation, three generals said in a letter to Rep. Dan Saddler, co-chairman of the House Special Committee on Military & Veterans' Affairs. Saddler is sponsoring a separate bill that would establish more access to private clubs for members of the military younger than 21, but not allow them to drink (See accompanying sidebar)
Lowering the drinking age could further increase drunken driving arrests of young soldiers who would drive back from off-base bars, they said.
"While consumption of alcohol is often regarded as a 'privilege of adulthood,' when our Service men and women deploy, they understand even those of drinking age may not be allowed to consume alcohol while deployed," said the letter from Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, commander of the Alaska Command, and Maj. Gen. Raymond P. Palumbo, commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska. "It is just part of the sacrifice military members make."
The legislation may linger before lawmakers decide anything. It's being considered by a committee that doesn't meet again this year.
Maria Wylie, a 20-year-old Army ROTC cadet at University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the measure sounded fair, as long as soldiers of all ages ensure they don't drink and drive.
Cody Short, a cadet in the Army ROTC at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said he was unsure why a special law should be created just for young soldiers.
"We follow the laws applied to the U.S," said Short, 20. "I can wait till I'm 21."
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.