Asking the Pentagon about drugs

What is the effect on the nation's military readiness when large numbers of soldiers and sailors are using illicit drugs daily or several times a week? Why haven't the people running our defense establishment made better progress against a serious problem they have known about for years? More pointedly: why the seeming lack of an all-out antidrug effort by our military leadership when the widespread use of dangerous substances by men on duty could disastrously sap our forces' ability to meet a sudden emergency?

These are unsettling questions. It gave the members of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control no pleasure to ask them of high-ranking Pentagon and armed services witnesses at a recent hearing on drug abuse in the military. But it was our sad duty to stress the importance of the matter in these terms. The basis of this renewed congressional concern was the committee's latest findings in a confidential questioning of more than 1,900 US enlisted personnel serving in Europe.

Almost everywhere in the report by a committee task force there is reason for worry. Sixteen percent of Army personnel and almost a quarter of the Navy personnel we surveyed admitted to using marijuana or hashish each and every day, making these young people chronic users of a debilitating substance. Figures for on-duty use of drugs or alcohol were equally distressing: 43 percent for the Army, 49 percent for the Navy group. A comparison with figures for the Army in Europe, contained in a survey conducted by our task force in 1978, indicated progress against hard drugs like heroin in cocaine, but use of marijuana-hashish continued high, involving more than half of the soldiers surveyed.

The overwhelming majority of enlisted persons answering the questionnaire rated the drug and alcohol treatment programs available to them as only "fair" to "poor."

The committee's survey, done last June and July at 22 military installations in West Germany and Italy, was not intended as a statistical analysis of drug use throughout the armed servies but as an independent aid in the committee's oversight task. The sampling from 425 crew members of the carrier Forrestal, for instance, makes up most of the Navy component of the survey and obviously does not necessarily mirror the Navy as a whole -- but the finding among lower-ranking enlisted personnel there of 60 percent on-duty drug use is shocking no matter what statistical disclaimers are added.

The Pentagon reaction to all this has not been entirely reassuring. At our hearing on Sept. 17, the Defense Department and military witnesses attested to their concern and described a variety of antidrug programs in place of planned. They made much, as always, of the influence on their personnel of widespread drug use in American society at large.

There was a regrettable tendency in the Pentagon delegation to view the congressional inquiry as an adversary proceeding pitting the committee members against the defense establishment. This was evidenced by a questioning of the task force survey's scientific validity, even though the findings of serious levels of drug abuse have been borne out by the services' own studies of the situation.

The defense leadership needed to be reminded that we all have an incalculable stake in reducing drastically and quickly the levels of drug abuse in the armed forces. Our committee seeks to cooperate toward the elimination of the problem and the consequent strengthening of US military effectiveness. The Pentagon's ideas are urgently sought on how Congress can best aid the effort.

The select committee has made many specific recommendations in the past about aspects of the armed services' antidrug programs, and will update these recommendations in the next few months. But the overriding recommendation from this quarter must be to urge the defense leadership to give the highest priority to bringing this damaging drug use in military units down to some irreducible minimum. No excuse will be good enough if the nation connot respond appropriately to a Soviet challenge, for instance, because too many drug-using troops are failing to perform as expected.

And it is not only a matter of maintaining the nation's fighting strength in a dangerous time. We have a responsibility as well to protect the futures of the young people who have volunteered to bear the burden of military service. That responsibility means ruling out conditions of drug availability or permissiveness that allow our personnel to slip deep into drug dependency as they wear the uniform.

My colleagues on the select committee and I hope that our next look at drug use in the military will reveal signs of dramatic progress on the problem.

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