Budweiser's Super Bowl ad only adds to military’s alcohol problem
I like beer, and would wager that most veterans like beer too. Budweiser placed a similar bet Sunday night during the Super Bowl with its ad “A Hero’s Welcome,” which showed a Norman Rockwell-esque homecoming for Army 1st Lt. Chuck Nadd in his hometown of Winter Park, Fla. — courtesy of Budweiser.
The ad tugs my heartstrings in the same complex way that standing ovations at Washington Nationals games for veterans do. The applause feels good, and is certainly better than what Vietnam-era veterans faced too frequently at home.
Nonetheless, the Budweiser ad should have never been aired. The ad ignores the complicated relationship that veterans have with alcohol, obscuring how much harm booze does to veterans when they come home. And the one-minute spot arguably breaks a handful of government regulations meant to prevent public endorsement of private brands, especially where alcohol and drugs are concerned.
Two main sets of military regulations exist to prevent the Army from getting, well, too buddy-buddy with companies like Budweiser. The first are the military’s ethics regulations. Joint Ethics Regulation section 3-209 states that “Endorsement of a non-Federal entity, event, product, service, or enterprise may be neither stated nor implied by DoD or DoD employees in their official capacities and titles, positions, or organization names may not be used to suggest official endorsement or preferential treatment of any non-Federal entity except (the services’ official relief societies).” Under that regulation, the Army cannot legally endorse Budweiser, nor allow its active-duty personnel to participate in their ads (let alone wear their uniforms), any more than the Army can endorse Gatorade or Nike.
The second set of regulations relates to the Army’s anti-alcohol program, something that has been in place for decades, and has evolved out of the all-volunteer force’s desire to have a drug- and alcohol-free workplace. Paragraph 3-4 of that regulation, titled “Deglamorization,” states that “[i]t is Army policy to maintain a workplace free from alcohol,” and that “Alcohol will not become the purpose for, or the focus of, any social activity. At all levels alcohol will not be glamorized nor made the center of attention at any military function.” That rule forbids the Army from bringing alcohol companies like Budweiser onto bases to support Army functions, and regulation sharply limits the ways the Army can interact with these alcohol makers and distributors, limiting such interactions to essentially flowing through Army-approved concessions on base (like the base liquor store or Officer’s Club).
I sent a detailed list of questions about how, and why, the Army seems to have ignored both sets of policies. An Army spokesman said the ad had been vetted, and that Army officials concluded that Ladd’s appearance in uniform while on duty did not constitute “official support to or otherwise partner[ing] with” Budweiser or the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the spot’s production. This logic convinced the Army’s top leaders that it would be OK to raise a toast to Budweiser.
Because these are Army and Defense Department rules, and not statutes carved into law, senior Pentagon leaders can generally waive them. However, an option’s legality often says nothing about its wisdom. The problems with the ad go way beyond the legal questions, and are in many ways far more serious.
Few things unite public health researchers more than the ill effects of alcohol. From its effects in the workplace to its links to domestic violence to its correlation with suicide, alcohol plays a role in thousands of deaths each year in this country.
For post-9/11 veterans, tens of thousands of whom are suffering from PTSD, the data have been unequivocal too.
The National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health found in 2005 that veteran alcohol use surpassed nonveteran drinking. The rates of alcohol use were highest among young veterans aged 18-25, who were also the ones most likely to engage in binge drinking. More recent studies echo those conclusions from the 2005 survey: “Studies show that alcohol misuse and abuse, hazardous drinking, and binge drinking are common among [Afghanistan and Iraq] veterans,” said one Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration policy brief, adding that increased combat exposure often increased the frequency and amount of alcohol consumption among young veterans.
According to a recent study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, 27 percent of Iraq War veterans met the criteria for alcohol abuse and were therefore at higher risk for drunk driving and illicit drug use. The NIH also reported that alcohol and drug use frequently overlapped with military suicide, with booze or drugs involved in 30 percent of Army suicide deaths between 2003 and 2009 and 45 percent of attempts during roughly the same period. That means alcohol is directly fueling the military’s suicide crisis, which has seen more than 1,500 troops take their own lives since the start of the two wars.
A 2011 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs and University of California, San Francisco researchers documented an 11 percent rate of alcohol or drug abuse disorder among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen by the VA. More importantly, those researchers found that three-quarters of those diagnosed with alcohol or drug abuse also had post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, meaning that those with PTSD or depression were four times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than their combat peers. In a more recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that 39 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans screened positive for probable drug abuse — the same percentage as had existed among returning Vietnam veterans decades earlier.
Despite all that data, the military has a long and complex relationship with alcohol. In past wars, active-duty servicemembers drank on the battlefield. Booze stains the occasional page of many World War I and II veterans’ memoirs. “Band of Brothers” veteran Dick Winters writes of his troops’ liberation of Hermann Goering’s wine cellar at the end of their fight across Europe. In Korea and Vietnam, our troops drank too, often to excess. Such was the nature of war, and the military embraced alcohol as part of the wartime experience.
That changed with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military instituted policies explicitly banning all deployed troops from consuming alcohol. There was a good reason for those rules, which is the same reason Sunday night’s Super Bowl ad went too far. Alcohol can lead to depression, worsen PTSD and — in some cases — accelerate the downward spiral that leads to suicide. Decades of research should have persuaded the Army to avoid getting in bed with Budweiser. Better for at-risk soldiers to hear a simple truth: This Bud isn’t for you.
Phillip Carter is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served in 2009 as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee policy.