JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – For soldiers of the 66th Military Police Company, a game of paintball Saturday morning went a little bit beyond capturing a flag; a fishing trip meant more than just the thrill of the catch; and kayaking wasn’t just a new rush.
For these soldiers, six different outings around Washington state and on Joint Base Lewis-McChord had purpose in addition to promoting activity: deglamorizing the use of alcohol.
Joined by senior leaders from the company, more than half the unit’s soldiers and noncommissioned officers participated Saturday in either a kayaking trip; a morning fishing trip; several games of paintball; late-morning church service; a visit to the Halloween-themed Wild Waves special; or a late evening horror movie, all while proving they can have fun without using alcohol.
All six events were either fully or mostly unit-funded.
Motivated to make a stand for their soldiers after noting a recent spike in alcohol-related incidents across Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 66th MP Company command team, Capt. Ranjini Danaraj and 1st Sgt. Eric Gutierrez, organized the array of events just two weeks ago to engage their unit in something more productive than drinking.
“We were getting a lot of statistics back from across Fort Lewis that there were a lot of soldiers getting themselves in trouble with alcohol,” Gutierrez said, “so we came up with an idea to give our soldiers something else to do rather than just sit in the barracks and drink.”
Spc. Matthew Mantei, a soldier with the company’s 1st Platoon, loved taking part in paintball games when he was younger, but Saturday was the first time in a while since Mantei last set foot onto a field.
As he reacquainted himself with the joy of tagging an opponent from nearly a hundred feet away – and the sting of being tagged himself – Mantei was having fun. But he saw the bigger picture behind the whole event.
“A lot of my friends live in the barracks, and they just stay there all day,” he said. “They don’t get out and have fun, and I can see how that builds up stress for them.”
Mantei is new to the unit. He comes from Fort Riley, Kan., a military installation he says has one of the worst track records in the Army for tickets while driving under the influence.
“At Fort Riley, we’re close to number one when it comes to DUIs,” he said. “There, they never thought of doing anything like this event, but it can really help soldiers out. It’s a big stress reliever.”
Danaraj says recently redeployed soldiers too often find a relief for their stress in all the wrong places.
“We always hear about how soldiers are messing up after deployment, and that’s the stuff that’s not fun to deal with,” she said. “Our unit has the same trends any other redeploying unit has. soldiers are trying to work in what they missed in a year or numb the pain.”
The company returned from Iraq in July, and for Danaraj, the two alcohol-related incidents she’s dealt with since then have been two too many.
She believes the key to lessening that blow of harmful redeployment indulgence is to get more engaged with soldiers.
“We always talk the piece to soldiers about having a plan to get home [after drinking],” she said, “but I think we can do more to emphasize social events that don’t revolve around alcohol.”
Staff Sgt. Cory Messingham, a squad leader with the company’s 3rd Platoon, has high hopes for engagements like the ones on Saturday.
“Soldiers can find a new activity they enjoy doing, and maybe they’ll continue doing that instead of just hanging out drinking,” he said.
Messingham even found something new for himself.
“I’ve played paintball a few times before,” he said regarding his experience Saturday, “but now I’d really like to start getting out and doing it more.”