Pentagon sees progress in battle against illegal drug use
A young sailor gulped down the shrimp salad on his mess tray, then turned his attention to the broiled halibut. ''We don't always eat this well, you know,'' he told a civilian at his table. ''It's just because you visitors are aboard. They're trying to make Navy life look good. But we have real problems.''Skip to next paragraph
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The problems, he said, involve illegal drugs - and what the Navy is doing about them. The sailor was especially worried about the Navy's get-tough policies. Officers have told their crews, in effect, to ''shape up or ship out.''
Another sailor, a petty officer, told this unhappy story: A few days before, he was tested for drug use. Traces of marijuana were found in his body even though, he claimed, he never used it.
How could this happen? The petty officer explained that he had spent the previous weekend ashore with his girl friend. While he was with her, she had smoked ''pot'' frequently. He had apparently inhaled the fumes, he claimed, which had been absorbed by his body. Now he expected to be reduced in rank and possibly given other punishment. His Navy career, which had been bright, now looks threatened.
Seven hours later, a visitor sits across the table from a young commander, crisp in his Navy whites. They are dining on fork-tender beef at the officers' club - and the visitor relates the story of the petty officer. The commander is unsympathetic.
''That's a sad story,'' he says. ''But it's probably just that - a story. We are not going to have drugs on our ships. Drugs could jeopardize the safety of the ship, the crew, the entire fleet. My advice to that young petty officer would be: 'Get another girl friend.' ''
Such are two sides of one of the most difficult battles now being waged by the Pentagon: the battle to force America's soldiers, sailors, and airmen to shake the illegal drug habit.
It's a battle that senior officials happily talk about because they think they are winning it.
On July 1, the struggle will intensify. The US Army will begin subjecting officers and enlisted personnel to far tougher rules.
In the past, Army policy has focused on rehabilitation for its drug users. The new policy:
* For officers and senior enlisted personnel, a single proof of illegal drug use could result in discharge.
* For junior enlisted personnel, second-time drug offenders will be thrown out of the service.
* Army men and women in sensitive occupations will be required to undergo at least one unannounced test for drugs every year.
These stern Army policies will bring that branch into line with what is already happening in other services.
So far, the results of the Pentagon crackdown have been encouraging. A new study, due for release next month, indicates that the number of junior enlisted men and women who smoke marijuana at least once a month has dropped from 37 percent in 1980 to 22 percent today. One drug fighter in Congress cautions, however, that the military is ''only in Round 3 or 4 of a 15-round struggle with this problem.''
To a great extent, of course, the military's drug problems reflect American society today. The Marine Corps' experience illustrates this. Even before they arrive at Marine boot camp here, young men are warned by recruiters that any drug use could result in immediate discharge. And as they arrive for basic training, signs greet them with the message:
Marine Corps policy on drugs! 'Drugs will not be tolerated'
Yet during the first week of processing here in San Diego, about 10 percent of incoming recruits are found to have drugs - mostly marijuana - in their bodies. They are immediately sent home.