What's a Soldier's Worst Enemy? A Congressman Worries It May Be Drugs

updated 08/03/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/03/1981 01:00AM

On May 26 a Marine EA-6B Prowler jet crashed in a night landing on the carrier Nimitz, killing three Marine fliers and 11 Navy crewmen and injuring 48 more. Autopsies found traces of marijuana in six of the crewmen's bodies; three showed "recent or heavy use. "Although the Navy has denied that drugs played any role in the crash, evidence of drug use in the armed forces was no surprise to Rep. Glenn English, 40. An Oklahoma Democrat who chairs the Congressional Task Force on Drug Abuse in the Military, English has interviewed more than 2,000 soldiers and sailors in his investigation of a drug crisis in the military. He has just returned from a second fact-finding mission overseas. English talked with Karen Peterson of PEOPLE.

Were you surprised to hear about drugs on the Nimitz?

I would have been surprised to hear that there weren't any drugs on board because they've become so common. We found that 70 percent of our enlisted military personnel under 25 are involved with drugs, and 50 percent use drugs while on duty.

Were the deaths on the Nimitz drug-related?

We can't close the door on that possibility. Obviously much depended on how fast those crewmen could react.

Do drug users have their hands on the button of our nuclear weapons?

No, they don't. In 1976 the Department of Defense said that out of 87,415 people working with nuclear weapons, 102 were dismissed from such duty for alcohol abuse, 909 for drug abuse. These figures are unreliable, because dismissals for "negligence" or "delinquency" could really be for drugs. Of course, these are not your average soldiers; people working around such weapons have very strict security clearances.

How available are hard drugs?

Very available, particularly overseas. In Germany in 1978 we found heroin was used by 30 percent of the under-25 enlisted personnel in some units, though most were occasional users, not addicts. Of the under-25s we surveyed, 52 percent readily admitted using marijuana or hashish on duty, 9.7 percent heroin and 12 percent cocaine.

Is drug abuse worse now?

My impression is that it's about the same. However, there is one bright spot: My perception is that hard-drug usage is down. It may be a temporary situation, or it may be because of increased vigilance by the services. But there are signs that our enlisted military have begun combining alcohol with marijuana.

How can enlisted men on notoriously low salaries afford drugs?

In 1978 we found that heroin was 20 times cheaper per gram in Frankfurt than in New York City. And the price has stayed about the same. As for the other drugs, that's like asking how can a down-and-out wino afford wine.

Do enlisted men use drugs before joining and continue while in uniform or begin once they sign up ?

Certainly both happen. Many recruits come from high-risk environments and already have some experience with illegal drugs, and if they were not users as recruits, peer pressure to use drugs in overcrowded conditions is high. In Germany we've got three guys bunking where two should be. If two are users, eventually you may have a third.

Are drugs sold on base?

Again we are talking almost exclusively about the 18-to-25-year-old enlisted population. Some drugs are dealt on bases and on ship at the middleman level, most probably by users trying to support their own habits. But more often drugs are bought directly from civilians at a port of call or in a city near military installations.

How bad does the military itself say the drug problem is?

Their numbers tend to be conservative, but a 1980 survey showed 21 percent of junior enlisted personnel admitted work impairment from drugs.

Can the problem be solved?

You won't solve it in the military unless you can solve it in society. But by turning up the heat on the Department of Defense, you can bring it under control. I am more encouraged now that there is a greater awareness of the problem. But we still have a long way to go. We have not been willing to supply the discipline we'll need to control the use of drugs. Isn't our military preparedness worth it?

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