S.C. lawmaker wants to lower drinking age for troops

COLUMBIA -- If you're old enough to fight, you're old enough to drink.

That's the opinion of state Rep. Fletcher Smith, who is sponsoring a bill that would make it legal for service members younger than 21 to down an alcoholic drink or buy a six pack.

All the service member would have to do is show his or her military identification card to the bartender or store clerk.

State law prohibits the sale or possession of alcoholic beverages by anyone 21.

It doesn't make sense to prohibit a young soldier, Marine, airman or sailor from having a drink, said Smith, D-Greenville.

"They've proven they're adults," Smith said. "They have the maturity that an average 18-year-old wouldn't have."

However, Smith's bill is opposed by highway safety advocates. And if it becomes law, South Carolina could lose up to 10 percent of its federal highway funds. Last year, that money totaled $287 million.

Troops have varying reactions.

Pfc. Stanton Jackson, who joined the Army National Guard at 19, agrees with Smith.

"If you're responsible enough to sign on the dotted line and serve your country, then you're responsible enough to drink," said Jackson, who recently turned 21. "You get real mature after you go through basic training."

Midshipman William Sandifer, a Naval ROTC cadet at the University of South Carolina, opposes the bill because it would lower the drinking age only for military members.

"You're saying we're more responsible, but it's just our job," said the 21-year-old Sandifer, who joined ROTC when he was 18.

Sandifer supports lowering the drinking age to 18 for everyone. "I was in Japan, where the drinking age is 18, and the place was not falling apart."

Military policy requires S.C. bases to follow state law, meaning alcohol cannot be served to service member younger than 21.

There are exceptions, though.

At Fort Jackson and Shaw Air Force Base, underage service members may drink at special functions if they have the approval of commanders. For example, if there's a ceremonial toast, underage troops could have a glass of champagne.

Soldiers in basic training, regardless of age, aren't allowed to drink alcoholic beverages, said Fort Jackson spokeswoman Karen Soule.

The Marine Corps recently loosened its rules to allow Marines younger than 21 to drink on base but only at functions approved by the commander.

Those events include the Corps' birthday ball, said Lt. Joshia Nicely, spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island.

"It's very controlled, very regulated," Nicely said. "There are plenty of senior members there monitoring and supervising.

"An 18-year-old guy is going to be an 18-year-old guy."

Underage Marines are not allowed to drink or possess alcohol anywhere else on base, Nicely said. Recruits in boot camp, regardless of their age, are not allowed to drink, he added.

South Carolina raised the drinking age to 21 from 18 in 1984 to comply with federal law.

Safety officials estimate about 23,000 lives or roughly 1,00r a year have been saved since the drinking age was raised.

If the state had not increased the drinking age, it risked losing federal money to build and maintain highways.

Lowering the drinking age for military members could cost the state up to 10 percent of the $287 million in federal road money South Carolina received in 2007, said a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.

Safety advocates, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, think Smith's bill is a bad idea.

"MADD supports our military and supports living life to the fullest," said Juliet Smith, spokeswoman for the S.C. chapter. "Let's not create additional dangerous risks. Let's protect our youth and our roadways."

Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of MADD's national office, said similar bills have been introduced in a handful of states, including Kentucky, Nebraska and Vermont.

"These bills are going up against a mountain of data and have very little public support," Hurley said. "We would be very surprised if these get serious consideration."

However, Smith thinks his bill, which has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee, has a chance to win support.

Smith said he decided to write the proposal after hearing the complaints of a 20-year-old Marine who couldn't buy a drink after returning home from Iraq.

"'I risked my life over there and now I can't get a beer,'" Smith quoted the Marine as saying.

"You're going to tell a Marine that you can't get a drink? What kind of crap is that?"