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Drugs and the military

Posted Dec 10 2008 11:05am

There are always certain images that come to mind when I recall the Vietnam War and my part in it serving in the U.S. Navy. The 1971 song by The Doors, “Riders on the Storm,” fills my head. We were preparing for another WestPac tour, and with that come memories of smoking marijuana and drinking beer. A rather large percentage of the men in my division smoked grass, and often got high while on duty.

I share this with you because I saw video of our soldiers walking through poppy fields in Afghanistan and could not help but wonder how big the problem is now. The military knew it had a bad situation in Vietnam, and in the post-war years made great strides in curbing the problem. Consider this-- about 25% of servicemen and women back in the early 1980’s had used illegal drugs. By the end of the 1990’s, it had dropped to 3%.

The Department of Defense (DoD), according to the American Forces Press Service, had looked at the two major aspects of the problem—supply and demand. To reduce the demand for drugs, the military ramped up its educational and deterrence efforts. Understand that the military, unlike society in general, has a huge hammer to drop when its personnel are involved with drugs. Rather than prosecuting someone in court, they discharge them. For those who do not want to leave the military, it’s an effective deterrent.

The DoD also is active in trying to prevent the flow of illegal drugs into the country. Where are the drugs coming from? How are they coming into the country? Getting back to the image of our soldiers in the poppy fields, know that Afghanistan is one of the world's leading suppliers of opium. From opium comes morphine and heroin. The opium from Afghanistan, in most cases, is shipped through Europe, as narcotic traffickers use a pipeline to ship and sell opium, and that pipeline is also used to smuggle illegal aliens, weapons and money for financing terrorism.

If you thought out the logic of illegal drug use to an extreme, you could probably at some point find a case for asserting that drug use was an act of treason. But consider one point—if I wanted to destroy a country, is it easier and cheaper to do it by destroying that country’s youth through drug addiction, or is it more effective to wage military war? The DoD must protect its ranks and is doing so effectively. U.S. military personnel may unwittingly be supporting our enemies by buying, using and transporting drugs. That cannot be tolerated. There are no excuses.

The military has instituted more sensitive drug testing, which detect a variety of illegal drugs. Drugs like ecstasy are of particular concern, because it’s readily available. In 2000, for example, the military discharged approximately 1000 people for ecstasy use. Newer tests are being developed to expand the “window of detection” for this drug and others, to detect traces of the drug in the urine for longer periods after use.

Still, according to the DoD, marijuana continues to be the most heavily used illegal drug in the military. Chronic use of marijuana leads to long-term effects on the brain, such as memory loss and learning deficits. It’s not a soft drug, it’s a dangerous threat. Exhaustive testing procedures are followed to insure that accurate results are attained, and it is getting increasingly more difficult to “beat” the test, despite a seemingly endless list of things to do to mask the drugs.

The military has a zero-tolerance policy for its personnel. In American society people think this is harsh, but for the military it is an absolute necessity for so many reasons. Our armed forces have an enormous responsibility, and anyone who has a sense of recent history can understand that there is no place in the military for drug use. Our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are in harms way, so any impairment of their ability to carry out their mission is deadly.

The video of the solider in the poppy fields just reminds me of how large the drug problem is. Supply and demand are keys to understanding our drug problem at home. Education in the home, in churches and synagogues, in the schools and in the workplace are vital components in preventing illegal drug use. As for deterrents, we can’t discharge personnel; we can’t lock everybody up; so fighting the cow after it has left the barn is extremely difficult.

One line from “Riders on the Storm” talks about a “killer on the road” and for us that killer is illegal drug use, drug abuse and alcohol abuse. It’s everybody’s problem. It’s a war and we’re all in it.

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