It was a devastating mistake.
What started out as a couple of drinks turned into a nightmare that will follow one Army noncommissioned officer for the rest of his military career — all because he got behind the wheel.
The NCO — whom we will refer to as Sgt. John Smith for the purpose of this story — was assigned to a unit in the Stuttgart military community when he entered a German bar on July 29, 2009.
He had developed a habit of drinking heavily following a 14-month deployment to Iraq with a former unit.
“I drank and drove probably for a good seven or eight months,” Smith said. “It got to the point where it didn’t seem to bother me anymore.”
That night, however, when the Polizei pulled him over, everything changed.
A breathalyzer test revealed Smith’s blood-alcohol content level to be 0.083. The legal limit in Germany is of 0.05. For those involved in an accident, the limit is 0.03.
His command was notified, and he received a general officer letter of reprimand, filed in his permanent record.
“That’s going to haunt me for the rest of my career,” Smith said.
He was also punished with a field grade-level Article 15 from his command, which reduced his rank from E-5 to E-4.
“I went from a supervisory pay grade to a junior enlisted pay grade,” Smith said. “That’s a huge drop.”
It took Smith more than a year to regain his rank, in which time he estimates that he lost more than $8,000 in basic pay.
The cost affected more than his wallet, however.
Once reduced, he received 45 days of restriction to post and extended duty, where he worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and forfeited half of two months’ pay. Smith’s driver’s license was also revoked for one year.
The punishment was hard on his family. “It was a very stressful time for them,” he said. “I had never been in trouble in my life when it happened, and I paid the consequences for it. It was an enormous shocker.”
Additionally, his unit requested that he be separated from the Army for misconduct. As an NCO with six years of service, Smith was entitled to a separation board made up of his superiors. He was recommended for retention, based on his performance record.
However, he still struggled to be accepted back into his unit. “The guys were telling me that I wasn’t fit to wear the uniform,” Smith said.
Once back at work, Smith was often called upon to talk about his experience, as an example. “It was very, very demeaning to be called out time and time again in front of a large group of people,” he said.
“I still have a stigma to this day with certain superiors,” he added.
He spent the following year in the Army Substance Abuse Program and went through a six-week rehabilitation program in Landstuhl.
“I used every resource available to me, as far as support goes,” Smith said. “I was determined to get through this.”
Since then, he has limited his drinking and never drives himself to a bar. He also warns other Soldiers about the consequences of drinking and driving.
“I have agreed to put my story out there to prevent other Soldiers from making the same mistake, if they listen,” he said.
German law and DUI
Drivers do not have to drink several alcoholic drinks to end up with a story like Smith’s.
The legal limit in Germany is 0.05, lower than the U.S. limit of 0.08. The German limit applies on post as well.
This limit can be reached by drinking one drink or less, according to Bala Fischer, U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Army Substance Abuse Program director.
“The mistake people tend to [make] is they think one drink is OK,” Fischer said. “If you drink at all … do not get behind the wheel.”
Those caught drinking and driving in Germany could be detained by the German police, even if they are driving below the limit, according to Army Capt. Scott Goble, trial counsel for the Stuttgart Law Center.
“Anytime you drive with alcohol on your breath, the Polizei can arrest you,” he said.
“Folks in Europe really need to have that in the back of their mind — they’re risking more by having a couple of drinks in Europe and driving home than they would in the States,” Goble added.
There are several repercussions for service members of all branches caught driving while intoxicated in Germany.
Under Army in Europe Regulation 190-1, if a service member’s BAC is between 0.05 and 0.079, their U.S. Army Europe driver’s license will be suspended for 90 days.
If their BAC is 0.08 or more, their license will be revoked for a year.
Two DUI convictions within five years will result in a five-year revocation of the license, and three alcohol-related traffic offenses will result in the permanent loss of the U.S. Forces license, Goble said.
To reinstate their driver’s license after a DUI incident, service members and civilians must complete the ASAP training, take remedial drivers’ training, and possess a stateside driver’s license before they can obtain a letter from the garrison commander recommending reinstatement.
Only service members are required to take ASAP training; however, Fischer recommends everyone visit the ASAP office soon after an incident to get the process started, rather than waiting until the revocation period is over.
In addition to a license suspension, service members under the jurisdiction of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command who are caught driving with a BAC of 0.05 or more will receive a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, which can be filed locally or in their permanent file, Goble said.
Those caught driving with a BAC of 0.1 or more are in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and face either a court-martial or, more commonly, a non-judicial action (Article 15) from their commander, Goble said.
Under Article 15, the maximum punishment could include:
E-4 and below: loss of all rank to E-1, loss of half of one month’s pay for two months, and up to 60 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
E-5/E-6: loss of one rank, loss of half of one month’s pay for two months, and up to 60 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
E-7 and above: may lose rank if punishment is imposed by a general officer, loss of half a month’s pay for two months, and 45 days of extra duties and restriction to the garrison.
Officer: no loss of rank, restriction for 30 days, arrest in quarters for 60 days, loss of half of one month’s pay for two months.
Driving with a BAC of over 0.1, or any level of intoxication sufficient to impair the mental or physical faculties, could be tried at a court-martial, Goble added.
At a court-martial for drunken driving, the maximum punishment a service member could receive is:
• If a personal injury is caused: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 18 months
• If no injury: bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and confinement for six months
In 2009, Army Regulation 600-85 was amended to require that Soldiers be initiated for separation if they:
• Receive two convictions of DUI during the course of their career, or
• Are involved in two incidences of alcohol-related misconduct per year.
Unlike service members, civilian employees and their family members who drive while intoxicated fall under German jurisdiction for fines and court orders, in addition to the garrison Civilian Misconduct Action Authority.
Civilians who apply for a U.S. Army Europe driver’s license become subject to AER 190-1 and imply consent to disciplinary actions by the CMAA if found in violation of the law, said Georgia Harville-Hummel, Chief of International Affairs at the Stuttgart Law Center.
Civilians caught driving under the influence of alcohol with a BAC level of 0.1 and above may be fined more than €1,000 and issued penal orders by local courts upon request of the district attorney, she added. A penal order is a summary judgment — a criminal fine.
“Penal orders have harsher consequences than a traffic ticket,” Harville-Hummel said. “It’s more of a criminal misdemeanor kind of judgment.”
When a civilian does not pay a penal order, German authorities will order confinement in lieu of payment for a number of days corresponding to the amount of the fine, she said.
Depending on their BAC, civilians will also have their driver’s license suspended or revoked.
U.S. Forces are bound by agreement to revoke a USAREUR license for as long as the German government requires, but they may also extend the period of punishment.
In addition, USAREUR may indefinitely revoke driving privileges for individuals who have multiple violations, she added.
To provide more ways to avoid drinking and driving, many Army units provide assistance to Soldiers who make the right choice.
For example, the 52nd Signal Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment, keeps a taxi fund available.
“There’s no reason why someone can’t pay a taxi driver because we have money available,” said Sgt. 1st Class Todd Parsons, detachment sergeant. “A lot of Soldiers use the taxi fund. It’s a lot better than getting picked up for DUI.”
Parsons also tells Soldiers to drink responsibly and never hesitate to ask for a lift if they have been drinking. They can also use public transportation, use one of two German taxi services that can come on post, or use a designated driver.
Regardless of the method, avoiding DUI is vital for protecting a military career, Goble added.
“If you’re going to have anything to drink, do not drive,” Goble said. “A €20 cab ride, that’s not going to end a career; a DUI could.”