Federal Legal Drinking

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The federal legal drinking age in the United States is 21. This legislation was enacted by Congress in 1984 subsequently raising the age from 18. The arguments for this legislation were that among people under the age of 21, the following issues would decrease: death from suicide, car accidents, falls, and drowning. Other issues of concern relative to drinking in this age group are alcohol dependence, binge drinking, sexual assault and violent crimes, alcohol poisoning, and slower brain development.

Approximately 5,000 people below the age of 21 die in alcohol-related incidents yearly, and there are many thousands of emergency room visits a year in this same age group due to drinking. Binge drinking is generally the perpetrator in these situations, with upwards of 90% of the alcohol imbibed is during this act (CDC, 2017). Also linked with binge drinking are violent crimes and sexual assault that can occur when a minor has had too much. Inhibitions and clear thinking decrease, leading to circumstances where morality is less of a factor than it would be normally. The simple truth of right and wrong become hazy, and this is when good decision- making becomes impaired (Ghillyer, 2018 p. 6).

The reasoning for the legislation was also to give young adults the chance to obtain what our society has deemed as the normal goals upon achieving adulthood. The brain doesn't fully mature until the age of 25, and alcohol can slow down or impair that growth. Achieving its' full potential would be hindered. School performance and attendance tends to falter. Consumption also can lead to dependence later in life. Problems reaching goals such as marriage, employment, and financial independence can result (Buddy, 2018).

The current age at which a person can enlist in the military is 18; or 17 with parental consent. This commitment is a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 6, dependent upon the rate (training), that the enlistee elects to undergo. After basic training, they attend advanced training in their specialty, and upon graduation they can be stationed anywhere in the world, including combat zones. This equates to possibly being deployed in a war zone at the age of 18. As the federal minimum drinking age is 21, this applies to the military also. Exceptions to that law are when stationed in a host country that allows drinking at a lower age, the base commander can elect to allow his subordinates the same right, at their discretion. In the early 1990's, when stationed in the United States within 50 miles of the Canadian or Mexican borders, soldiers could drink at 18; this was to prevent them travelling into the neighboring country and getting into worse trouble (Dieterle & Rizer, 2017). This is no longer a policy that the armed forces practice. Depending on where you are stationed and the discretion of the base commander, determines the underage drinking rules. If a person volunteers for service, possibly putting themselves in harm's way for their country, does that not show enough maturity to allow them to consume alcohol before they are 21?


When a person joins the military, it's very different than starting a new job or going off to college. The time commitment is just that, a set amount of time that is mandatory unless extreme events prevent further service; you cannot just give 2-weeks' notice and search for employment elsewhere. The place your stationed also isn't your choice, unlike selecting your school or where you choose to work. You can be away from family and friends for many months, with no option of vacation to visit. Constitutional rights concerning search and seizure and privacy rights are diminished affording less protection to a member of the military (Staff, 2018). The term military service means serving your country and making sacrifices to provide that service.

When a person not serving breaks the law by consuming or possessing alcohol, they generally receive a fine and/or community service. In Iowa, a first offense is a $200 fine, with that increasing to $500 for a third offense and the suspension of a drivers license for up to 1 year (N.A., 2018). The military has its' own set of codes and punishments under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The punishment for underage drinking can include all, part, or a combination of restriction to base for up to 45 days, extra duty for not more than 14 days, reduction in rank, loss of 50% base pay for up to 2 months. If an enlistee is the lowest rank of E-1, that amount approaches $1500 (Karns, 2018). If the offense is committed off-base, they will face these consequences on top of the civil fines.
Consequently, our military under the age of 21 cannot legally drink and faces stiff fines and punishment. How does this make sense when we train them to fight our wars with weapons that can cause massive damage? This does not make any sense to me when in the past, our armed services were able to drink, and I can't remember, nor have I read in the history books, where a drunk soldier went on a rampage of death and destruction. If anything, their training helps them to handle circumstances they can't control, and often act with courage and integrity.


In order to gain a larger picture of how different people of diverse ages and backgrounds view this dilemma, I conducted an interview. The following question is what I ask all the participants, their answers, and my thoughts on their replies.
What are your views on a military member having the right to consume alcohol if they are under the age of 21?
1. Autumn McClintock, 13 years old, replied:

I don't believe anyone should be able to drink if they are in war. If the enemy attacks they might be drunk and not able to fight back. Also, it's never a good idea to mix guns and alcohol. If they aren't in war, even if they are underage, they should be allowed 1 or 2 drinks, but only if they are in the military. McClintock, A. (2018, November 9). Personal interview.
This surprised me a little bit as I didn't expect my daughter to have these views. SADD and zero-tolerance policies are heavily indoctrinated into them in this school district. Her idea that this type of service should enjoy a limited privilege was unexpected.
2. Jimmy Hunter, local police officer, replied:

Being a police officer, I deal with this situation quite often. Marion is a zero-tolerance town for underage drinking, but each situation is unique. Underage is underage, and the law is clear, but we do have some flexibility in dealing with first offenses and situations where no real harm is being done. There are times where I have the alcohol poured out and then they must get home responsibly, either by a sober friend or taxi. When it comes to the military, I believe if the possibility is there that a person might make the ultimate sacrifice, they are generally mature enough to drink responsibly, and should be allowed to do so. Hunter, J (2018, November 10). Phone interview.

This was the response I expected as most people in law enforcement identify with the military and believe that the training and sacrifice instills a responsible level of maturity. His message was more pointed towards being smart about it and behaving appropriately.
3. Laure Stoffel, naturalized U.S citizen from France, replied:
We can legally drink wine and beer at 16, and liquors at 18 in France. Drinking wine when younger at restaurants is overlooked if you are with your parents. This is just our way of life. I think Americans are generally to uptight when it comes to these things. I think responsible drinking should be allowed to everyone at 16 or 18, regardless of being in the army. Stoffel, L. (2018, November 12). Personal interview.

Again, this was the response I expected as Europeans are more liberal when it comes to alcohol consumption, most likely due to their exposure and culture.
4. Kimberly Starry, high school teacher, replied:

That's a tough one, but working with young people every day, I don't believe that people under the age of 21 are developed enough to drink responsibly. I hear horror stories from colleagues working at universities of students coming to class drunk, or not coming at all after a weekend of binge drinking. They just don't know when they have had enough and being in the military doesn't necessarily change that. Starry, K. (2018, November 8). E-mail.

This response also surprised me a little as I feel that teachers are exposed to more diversity and different morals than most people through their students, and my assumption was different than her answer. I expected something along the lines of a mandatory class on drinking responsibly be taken by the service members to earn the privilege.
5. Mike Saunders, Vietnam Veteran, replied:

When I was in the service many years ago the drinking age was 18. Also, at that time your buddies looked out for you, not saying that doesn't happen today, but that was a different era, and while the camaraderie is there, I don't know if it's the same. Maybe just old-fashioned ideas, not sure, but that shouldn't matter. Military life can be stressful enough, add combat into that and you must be able to blow off steam somehow. I didn't volunteer, I was drafted, and I know its voluntary now, but if you're willing to die for your country, you're d*** sure old enough to have a drink. Saunders, M. (2018, November 12). Phone interview.

Being formal military, this is in line with what I thought the reply would be. His alluding to the camaraderie of the past interested me; we still had a sense of camaraderie, but I don't feel to the same level. He keeps in touch with everyone alive from his unit. I do keep in touch with a few of mine, but not all.

6. Victoria Fejfar,University of Iowa senior, replied:
I believe all people 18 or older should be able to drink. Yes, there will be people who abuse alcohol, but is that different for people over 21? I'm old enough to vote, join the military, and pay bills, so I should be able to legally have a drink if I choose. It's just a way for the local governments to make money by fining us. Fejfar, V. (2018, November 10). Personal interview.
I would expect someone in college, and underage, to feel this way and have the view that it should be legal. It's something that is already going on and alcohol is not illegal.


In conclusion, I believe that persons serving in the military should be allowed to legally drink, regardless of their location, with certain stipulations. The military issues identification cards to every member, and this could be presented in lieu of a driver's license. As part of core training, a course on responsible drinking and proper behavior befitting a soldier must be successfully completed. Many professions require continuing education, and this course should be taken yearly until the age of 21 is reached. This privilege should not be available when stationed in a combat zone or in hostile stations. I agree with my daughter wholly; guns and alcohol never mix. Punishments should be severe if the soldier abuses this right and laws are broken, or damage is caused. The code of ethics regarding drinking should be clear, as well of the consequences (Ghillyer, 2018 p.26). Consuming alcohol isn't an intrinsic right, it is a priviledge.

The military and its' members are sometimes placed under immense pressure. They must be away from loved ones for extended periods of time, sometimes without the opportunity of contact for weeks. They also face the risks of severe injury, capture, and death. They must struggle with the moral dilemma of taking a life and deal with the psychological aftermath that comes with that action. Maybe our views on underage drinking are influenced by the Puritanical ethics brought here by our founders, or the ideas that brought about the Prohibition Act. I think ethics must continually evolve to keep pace with the changing times and world. They cannot always de defined in absolute terms of black and white, a shade of grey needs to be contemplated. If a soldier is properly trained and behaves within the confines of a strict code of ethics that exemplifies good personal values, then allowing them to drink shouldn't be an issue.

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Federal Legal Drinking. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved May 20, 2024 , from

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