The Pentagon’s battle to keep illicit drugs out of the barracks and off warships has faltered during the past few years as more servicemen and women have failed drug tests and been discharged. Drug use has increased after a 20-year decline, and 17,000 people have been kicked out of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps since 1999, according to statistics compiled by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Some critics worry that a higher incidence of substance abuse may weaken preparedness in a military at war. The Pentagon argues that its drug problem remains small compared with the civilian world.
Yet military authorities acknowledge that repeated warnings about the penalties for drug use—and frequent random testing—are failing to deter some troops.
Making things tougher, illegal substances are easily available in San Diego County, where military and civilian youths commonly mingle at parties and there are the enticements of an international border.
“Ecstasy, raves, Mexico and 9/11—that’s going to continue to make stresses that may cause (sailors) to use drugs,” said John Schultz, the civilian manager of the Navy’s West Coast PREVENT drug education program.
Some fear rising drug use shows the military is becoming lax—a claim the services flatly reject. “We’ve taken our eye off the ball,” said Robert Maginnis, vice president of policy for the Family Research Council, a Washington think tank. “We’re supposed to have zero tolerance (toward drugs).
” Military data requested by the Union-Tribune show:
Last year, the Navy discharged more people for drug use than the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps combined—3,407 sailors, up 47 percent from 1999.
The Marine Corps, the smallest and the most frequently drug-tested service, lost about 1 percent of its forces to drug offenses last year—the largest percentage in the military. Urinalysis samples revealed that drug test failures rose 82 percent for the Air Force between 1999 and last year. The Air Force tests less often than the other military branches. Drug testing by the Army increased 3 percent since 1999; the number of soldiers who failed increased 32 percent. Military anti-drug experts contend the increases are modest in a force of nearly 1.4 million men and women. “All the indicators are telling us the numbers are going up,” said Col. Craig Smith, chief of the Air Force military justice division. “But, there wasn’t the sense of the sky was falling.”
Military officials say they have generally made great progress. “By almost any measure, we’re light-years ahead of where we were 20 years ago and even 10 years ago,” said Air Force Col. Peter Durand, the service’s substance abuse program manager. Even so, the Navy and Marines have been embarrassed by several high-profile drug cases recently. Recently, the Navy held the first of two courts-martial from a May crackdown on drug distribution and use aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Nimitz. Both individuals were found guilty and sentenced to the brig. In all, seven sailors aboard the warship were charged with drug violations and await trial. Ten more sailors aboard two destroyers in San Diego also have been punished and are being discharged after failing random urinalysis tests.
And, earlier this month, the Marine Corps announced a two-year drug investigation at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in which 82 Marines and sailors have been convicted and $1.4 million worth of drugs was confiscated. Offenses involved distribution and use of designer or club drugs such as Ecstasy, ketamine and GHB.
Thousands of others who test positive for drug use remain in the military because some commanders, granted wide discretion, give first-time offenders second chances. Last year, for example, 8,948 Army soldiers tested positive, but only 1,262 were removed.
With the nation fighting terrorism, drug abuse poses a readiness issue, some military and defense experts say. Troops using drugs are more likely to make mistakes, react slowly in combat and be vulnerable to blackmail.
“We don’t want anything that would detract from performance,” Smith said.
The problem is also expensive. Training for many military jobs, such as tank drivers or jet mechanics, costs more than $100,000. Pilot training is an even greater investment. That money is wasted if a service member is discharged or court-martialed for drug use.
The military’s internal battle against drugs has been a long one.
The Vietnam War was marked by pervasive drug use throughout the largely conscript military. The social upheaval of an unpopular conflict—combined with a permissive attitude toward drugs at home and easy access to opiates and marijuana in Vietnam—produced a major military drug problem in the 1960s and ’70s. Even when an all-volunteer force replaced draftees, drug use continued to interfere.
It wasn’t until random drug-testing began in 1981 that the Pentagon dramatically cut usage from an estimated 40 percent for marijuana to less than 2 percent today, according to surveys. Zero-tolerance policies, first instituted during the Reagan administration, and more accurate tests further reduced use.
Slightly more than 1.5 percent of the military tested positive last year for drug use. “If in a normal society you achieved these (military) levels, it would be considered a success,” said civilian drug control expert Wilkie Wilson. “I can’t get worked up about this.” A federal survey of civilian 18-to 25-year-olds in 2000 indicated that 16 percent had used drugs during the previous month.
The military tests for marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines (including Ecstasy), amphetamines, opiates, LSD and PCP.
Most military branches randomly test about 10 percent of personnel each month. The Marines administer nearly four tests per capita each year. The Air Force tests the least in a year, fewer than one test per service member.
The Navy and Marines also do unit-wide drug tests at least once a year. And last year, a San Diego admiral doubled the drug tests for sailors on many ships.
The military’s anti-drug message is loud and clear to the new recruits at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot and every other boot camp. Recruiters explain the drug testing policy several times to potential enlistees, who are first tested when they are screened by doctors at regional processing centers.
In their first five minutes in boot camp, Marine recruits hear the drug policy again. Within their first 72 hours, urine is tested. Those who fail are sent home immediately.
Boot camp also includes a two-hour class on drug rules, the testing program and the hazards of drugs. Several times, the recruits and drill instructors informally discuss drugs and how to avoid them.
“We try to ingrain it into them at the beginning,” said MCRD drill instructor Staff Sgt. Manuel Guerra. “No one can say they didn’t know (the rules).” But some use drugs anyway. Master Chief Petty Officer Fred Cetnar sees them in his office aboard the amphibious ship Peleliu. He interviews every sailor in the crew whose urinalysis test “pops” positive for drugs. His first question: “Why?”
Many just shake their heads. Others bury their faces in their hands and cry. Some deny the results—until he shows them the lab printout.
“Nine out of 10 say ‘I made a mistake,’ ” said Cetnar, a 25-year Navy veteran. “Unfortunately, in the military, there’s no second chance.”
Like their civilian counterparts, some young service members ignore the warnings, believing they are indestructible, above the law or unlikely to be caught, several noncommissioned officers said.
Alcohol also is an important factor. Young Marines party off base with civilians, get drunk and, at the suggestion of others, may try an illicit drug, said Master Gunnery Sgt. David Save. Then, they are snagged by a random drug test, he added
The military’s law enforcement agencies, such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, target drug distribution and dealing on and near bases. Such investigations were key to the arrests in the Nimitz and Camp Lejeune cases, agents said. But those agencies largely have shifted focus to counterterrorism since Sept. 11, officials note privately. Publicly, they say, drug investigations are continuing.
Those who fail a random drug test can be dismissed through an administrative process and given an honorable, general or other-than-honorable discharge, depending on the circumstances. Such dismissals may keep them from re-enlisting, bar them from some federal and state jobs or cause them to lose veterans’ benefits.
Offenders found guilty at court-martial can face fines, the forfeiture of pay, time in a military brig or federal prison, loss of rank and a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge. They will have a felony or misdemeanor criminal record, depending on the severity of the crime or sentence. But, despite the risks, the past three years have seen some increases.
Overall military drug testing has increased 15 percent in the past three years; more than 3 million urinalysis tests were given last year. The Navy expanded its testing program by one-third, from 699,107 tests in fiscal 1999 to 933,130 in fiscal 2001.
Throughout the military, positive test results rose 29 percent during that time and administrative discharges increased by 32 percent. Discharges resulting from courts-martial could not be calculated because the Navy and Air Force could not provide annual statistics on drug-related charges that go to trial. Some military drug experts see progress this year, but no one is declaring victory. “I think we’re doing a better job,” said Col. Christine Halder, who oversees the Army’s drug-testing program. “But, I can’t tell you what we didn’t catch, and I’d be foolish to say we catch everything.”