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Story Last modified at 9:11 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bill wouldn't let them drink

Alaska Star

Officers at Eagle River's Veterans of Foreign Wars club enlisted Eagle River's Representative Dan Saddler in their mission to open the doors to active-duty service men and women – even those who aren't quite 21 yet.

House Bill 50 sponsored by Saddler would let soldiers under 21 enter licensed premises of patriotic clubs if they are members or guests of a member. It would not allow them to drink alcohol.

The bill also has a section that expands access to service and patriotic organizations for active-duty service men and women over 21. Some language in statute limits such access to "special occasions" only, Saddler wrote in an e-mail. HB 50 deletes this language.

Saddler called the bill "simply an access bill" and said he wanted to emphasize that the bill would not allow underage persons to drink.

"It simply clarifies that soldiers over 21 don't have to wait for a 'special occasion' to visit patriotic clubs, and that soldiers under 21 can visit if they are club members, or guests," he wrote.

Eagle River's VFW Post 9785 asked for Saddler's help several months ago while the legislator was at the post, according to John Mattison, the post quartermaster and himself a Vietnam-era veteran who retired as a U.S. Army major. Mattison talked to Saddler again by phone in late March.

"A young troop can enlist when he's 17, go through his training, go to Afghanistan, come back when he's 19," Mattison said. "He's eligible for the VFW but he can't come in. I wanted to untangle that mess."

But once inside, wouldn't it be pretty easy for an underage soldier to wander up to the bar and order a beer? Or get a friend to do the buying for him?

Mattison said the VFW doesn't go through a lot of bartenders, and the staff gets to know patrons.

"I don't see that as being a problem at all," he said. "We've talked to our bartenders. They said, 'No, it won't be a problem.' They card everybody they don't know."

In terms of someone buying for an underage member, Mattison said that could theoretically happen the way laws are written now – somebody can bring in an underage soldier as a guest, sit them at a table and buy the table a pitcher of beer.

The larger problem is that right now, an Afghanistan veteran can't come in the door of the VFW unless there's a special occasion, Mattison said. If the bill passes, the soldier could become a dues-paying member.

"Any time we get an Afghanistan or Iraqi vet in there, it's a special occasion, that's how we treat it," he said. "But we've got to sign them in as guests."

The bill remained in the House Judiciary Committee as of Tuesday.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.