Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Military enters modern era regarding smoking

While reading on the news wires that the Navy is moving forward with a smoking ban on submarines, it caused me to consider just how much the military has changed since I served.

And despite the military’s insistence that it is not following trends in the “slimy” civilian world, the reality is that there have been many, many changes.

For example, women. Back in the late 1990s, I was working for the Boca Raton News as a copy editor and business editor. I got a call from the public information officer of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy informing me that the captain of the ship was coming to speak to Boca Raton High School’s Navy Junior ROTC classes. Could I send a reporter?

I got permission from the editor to go and cover the story myself, and suddenly I was the beat reporter for the JROTC at the school. I also got to go with them on a tour of a gigantic aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis. Two busloads of high school kids, chaperones and one reporter rode down to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, and I got on the biggest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

Mind you, I had served on the USS Tarawa, an LHA, but this ship was enormous and mostly empty, with only a few planes aboard. The hangar deck was gigantic, but the flight deck just blew my mind. I gravitated to the Marine detachment, introduced myself, and showed them some rifle drill.

One thing that also blew my mind was the presence of women. About a fifth of the ship’s company was women. I remembered back when ships were almost all male-only. The Tarawa had had three women aboard, and despite their low rank they lived in officer country on the ship. They got off the ship before we went into the Indian Ocean.

The women on the Stennis worked in many of the jobs the men had, and the ship had separate quarters for each gender. It was just different from what I had experienced in my service.

Many of the comments directed at articles about the Navy’s plan for a smoking ban on submarines were along the lines of “we have so much stress, we need to smoke to calm down.” One fellow noted that in every World War II movie, you see the troops smoking.

Well, back then there wasn’t the awareness of the danger of smoking that there is today. It is a fact that the American Medical Association knew that smoking caused health problems, but the AMA allowed doctors to appear in ads, as did nurses, endorsing certain brands of cigarettes. Smoking was considered mostly harmless, and much was made of certain characteristics, such as “scarcely a cough in a carload” or “it’s toasted.”

In fact, the famous “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” campaign aroused the ire of candy makers, who complained to the Federal Trade Commission that it was unfair that Lucky Strike could make that claim in ads.

At the peak, about 70 percent of the American adult population smoked, and much was made of the troops lighting up in combat. In fact, when I was taking the most basic infantry training at Parris Island, there was instruction on how to light a cigarette while out on guard and required to maintain light discipline. Not smoking didn’t seem to be an option.

I never smoked cigarettes, and my parents had quit smoking before I was on my way to Parris Island.

I felt kind of sorry for the recruits who smoked because while smoking was not banned for recruits, it was severely limited. It’s not fun being around someone who’s dying for a smoke but who cannot have one. I remember one really awful day when I was detailed with several others from my platoon for the base laundry. One recruit kept requesting a cigarette break, and the sergeant in charge (not a drill instructor) kept saying no, until finally he was worn down.

“Take out a cigarette,” he said to the recruit. The recruit did so.

“Give it to me,” the sergeant said to the recruit, and the recruit complied.

The sergeant broke the cigarette in half, gave it back to the recruit and said, “That’s your cigarette break.”

On another occasion, a recruit kept saying over and over, “Did I hear, ‘Smokers, draw one.’?” He didn’t.

My sympathy for smokers declined after I had to be part of details to pick up cigarette butts. I thought only smokers should be on those details and was tempted to inform the drill instructors of my views, but decided that spending the rest of my life doing bends-and-thrusts and leg-lifts was not worth being clever to a man with all those ribbons on his chest.

There will come a time when there will be no more smokers in the military, and that will be a great day for the military and its people. Troops may complain about their freedom being taken away, but smoking is a dubious freedom that will come back and haunt them in the end.

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May 17, 2010 - Posted by | Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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