A Red Cross volunteer lights the cigarette of a wounded sailor as he awaits transport to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland in 1945. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Policy-wise, things have tightened up, but not enough, said Sward. Smoking is only allowed in designated areas nowadays. U.S. Navy submarines went smoke-free in April 2010, which, Sward said, may contribute to the Navy’s lower tobacco use rates compared with other branches’. And the Air Force was the first service to establish a policy for e-cigarettes in line with rules for other tobacco products.
But social pressures persist. On some bases, not being a smoker in the under-25 crowd may find you alone in a bar on a Saturday night. Leslie Souza, 23, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, stationed in Jacksonville, N.C., knows what it’s like when all your friends leave their drinks to go outside for a smoke.
Then she is faced with a choice, she said: “Do I go outside and be cold, or do I stand by the bar alone?”
Almost everyone she knows in the Marines smokes, she said.
“I think that’s why some people get into smoking, because they think, ‘I don’t want to stand here by myself,’” she said.
It also depends on your age when you join the military.
“I joined a little later, but most are 17 or 18,” she said. “They can’t drink, but they can smoke. For me, joining a little later, I can go out and have a drink on my own and don’t have to feel like I have to have a cigarette.”
People arrive in the military as nonsmokers, and as soon as they hit basic training, they start using tobacco, said Dr. Jenene Nelson, a former flight nurse and retired commander in the Air National Guard who has studied tobacco use in the military.
“That’s the cultural influence, that it’s OK to do it,” she said, “this idea of ‘I might die anyway, so why not do whatever the hell I want?’”