Lately it has been awkward to be both a soldier and a woman. Civilian friends gently inquire about my welfare, always after a kindly and meaningful pause. They've read about the military's problems with sexual assault, they say, and they'd like to support me if I need it.
Fortunately, I do not.
To what should my luck be attributed? I am physically fit, friendly and attractive. I have deployed overseas and sometimes work alone late at night. I attend social events and occasionally enjoy a nice glass of pinot grigio.
But fortune favors the prepared, and I have always understood that the brotherhood of arms ends at the first drink. Upstanding, highly disciplined soldiers can become leering fools under the influence of alcohol, and I know from hard experience that in off-duty social settings, it is best to drink lightly and leave early.
The reasons for the growing sexual-assault problem in our military are complex and require serious investigation. Sexual assault is not confined to places and times when alcohol is consumed. But it has been known for years that alcohol abuse is a dominant factor in most military sexual-assault cases. Nearly all recent high-profile cases of military sexual assault involved alcohol in some form.
It is painful to warn young soldiers, who understandably revere the brotherhood of arms, that the brotherhood ends when the consumption of alcohol begins. Civilians know about our fraternity from movies and history books, and in my experience all that is true. Soldiers will willingly die to protect each other, and this love rivals all other great passions. It is exhilarating to work toward meaningful goals, serving side by side with admirable people. My experience has also been that women are full and valued members of the team, whether deployed overseas or stationed at the Pentagon. But off-duty, when drinks are in hand, this can quickly change.
We must be honest with ourselves: Alcohol abuse strips away the brotherhood and incapacitates the better angels of human nature. After a few drinks with the guys, official lectures on mutual respect are forgotten by otherwise decent people. And even at many official events, robust alcohol consumption is encouraged.
More times than I can count, I have broken the hearts of new troops when I explain that they are not safe when their military brothers are drinking. The security and fellowship of the battlefield that they can expect and provide in turn may not extend past that first drink. The realization sinks in slowly, and we share a moment of quiet sadness.
This does not excuse perpetrators, nor does it mean that women in the military are destined to be victims. In most situations, warriors can avoid becoming sexual-assault statistics by exercising good judgment. They can drink lightly or not at all. They can always attend social functions with a friend committed to look after them (and vice versa). Above all, they can avoid reaching a stage at which they may pass out.
But at the same time, leadership at all levels must do more to hold troops responsible for the conduct of individuals around them, starting with finding troops complicit in wrongdoing under the Uniform Code of Military Justice if they fail to protect people who have become incapacitated.
Just as colleges and universities have taken steps to address student alcohol abuse, our military brass must acknowledge the second- and third-order effects that devastate individual and unit military effectiveness. Discussion of this issue should be frank, and it must be made plain that such excess has no place in our ranks.
At the platoon and squad levels, we conduct battle drills so that each soldier learns to instinctively take collective action in combat situations. Similarly, our youngest troops must be drilled on how to manage social situations and how to react collectively against predators who isolate victims and ply them with alcohol.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said recently that it is up to every one of us to solve this problem within our ranks. So let's acknowledge reality and empower our troops. To restore our military's honor and to maintain our beloved brotherhood, we must train troops to protect themselves from terrible moments of alcohol-fueled misjudgment. Let's start with an honest conversation: Alcohol abuse fractures our fraternal bonds.
Elizabeth Robbins, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, wrote this column for The Washington Post. The views expressed are her own.