Contrary to urban legend, drug use wasn't rampant in Vietnam while
I was there, but incidents did occur all around. I'll just relate
the drug stories that occurred on my shift. There really weren't that
many and they affected only a small number of troops. In fact, the
same few names popped up over and over in most cases.
As the commander of Delta Company in 1969, my policy was to address
any UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) violation that I saw,
but not to tiptoe around trying to bust people. I only prosecuted
one D Company soldier for drug abuse, but his problems surfaced more
The speed (methamphetamine) habit of one young cook at LZ Uplift first
came to my attention as a result of an Article 15 that arose shortly
after I took command in mid-1969. I'll call him "John".
The 19-year old soldier was cooking eggs to order in the chow line
at breakfast with surplus neurotransmitters buzzing around in his
brain, when a passing sergeant asked for his eggs to be sunny side
up. Taking the request as a personal affront, the cook aggressively
said that he was making eggs easy over, and that was that. When the
nonplussed NCO suggested that he dish up some that were ready to be
turned, John gave them to him... all over his shirt front, and then
resumed compulsively turning over the eggs left on the grill as if
nothing had happened. The watching Mess Sergeant quickly placed him
on less public duties, and the case came to me later that day.
The more than a dozen witnesses were hardly needed, as the issue was
a slam-dunk. Even the young man admitted what he'd done. It wasn't
John's first Article 15, anyway, and he didn't even have a stripe
left to take. I was curious about his drug habit as he was my first
acknowledged "Speed Freak" (but because I had been a policeman
before joining the Army, he was certainly not my first drug addict),
and so we chatted at some length. John mentioned how speed normally
made him feel energetic, active and, well, really good - unlike marijuana
which made him dopey and got him in trouble.
"I haven't been sleeping good, Sir," he mumbled, eyes shifting
around rapidly. "And that sergeant, well Sir, he's got it in
for me anyway. I'm sorry, cap'n, but, well, things just got a little
out of hand."
In the course of our discussion, John acknowledged that he'd done
wrong, that taking speed had interfered with his job and he promised
to try to keep his problem under better control. One of the E6s in
the company looked after some of the fellows with dependency problems,
and he agreed to add John to his flock.
I was severely shocked about six months later when the E6 was busted
with a bursting foot locker of illicit pharmacopoeia sufficient to
stimulate anyone's limbic system. I dearly wanted to, and even half
did, believe his explanation that (1) some drugs were being held for
troops in the field and (2) the remainder were drugs that he had confiscated.
Alas for him, the members of his Court-Martial Board were made of
sterner stuff than me.
To my mind, John's Article 15 followed a similar pattern to many other
drug-related incidents in the military, and indeed, in the civilian
world. Because it was difficult to gain a "conviction" on
charges of possession (which many people didn't take seriously), intent
to sell (which implied a state of mind) or conspiracy (difficult to
prove), legal proceedings with the best chance of success involved
prosecuting people for the acts that they actually committed while
under the influence rather than for the drug offenses themselves.
So we pick up John's story a week or so later, with John a happy camper
and everything copacetic... or so I thought. I had been paternally
tracking John's progress and he in fact had been doing okay, but on
the night in question I wandered into the company orderly room and
several "anonymous persons" advised me that John had fallen
off the wagon big time and was out on the LZ Uplift greenline with
the "drugs crew". I was concerned for John, so I stripped
off my LBE and stowed my .45 and M16 in the orderly room, and ambled
on out past the motor pool to the crest overlooking the bunkers on
the northwest side of the LZ Uplift perimeter where the crew recreated.
It depended upon the weather whether you spotted the glowing tips
or smelled the pungent aroma first, but no matter which, they could
see me coming a long ways off, and like dying fireflies, the red lights
blinked out as I approached. All up, there were about two dozen men
sitting around in the silent, dark night, pretty much all but one
scoping me out.
"Hello, men. Nice night, isn't it?"
After the amenities were finished, I launched into the reason for
my flagrant violation of protocol, "Don't suppose any of you
have seen John, have you? I hear he's in a bad way and just wanted
to make sure he's okay."
"No, captain, we ain't seen him, but we'll be on the lookout."
"Okay, thanks for that. It sounds like John could maybe use some
"You be careful, too, sir. Charlie's just out there somewhere...."
After a minute or two more of polite chitchat, I ambled back to the
orderly room, pretending not to notice the two men helping a stumbling
third back towards our company area, just as I had pretended not to
notice that the one hunched-over fellow facing away from me had been
a dead ringer for John even in the dark.
I was pulling Duty Officer for the company that night, so an hour
or so later I was getting ready to catch a few Z's in the cot in the
back of the orderly room when a burst of M16 fire raked the area.
Quick as a flash, on went the LBE and helmet and I grabbed my M16
and ran out the rear door and onto the top of the staircase at the
back of the hootch. Most people I saw were prone on the ground in
the company area, and several called, "Get down. Incoming."
But I wasn't alone, two hootches away was another soldier on the rear
deck also looking out intently for the enemy. Because the firing had
stopped, I walked over despite the advice of the cowering troops to
ask what he had seen, and it was, of all people, John, fully dressed
in jungle fatigues and boots, and holding an M16 ready to fire.
"Hey John, what's going on? What was the shooting about?"
"I'm sorry, captain! I was trying to sleep like you wanted me
to, but they wouldn't listen and just kept playing poker and carrying
on so I let off a burst and ran 'em out of the hootch."
The postscript to this story is interesting. When John had done his
time at LBJ (Long Binh Jail), he was offered a rehab transfer to another
unit so he could start again fresh. He refused, and asked to come
back to my company because he thought I understood him and we got
along. Fortunately, he did get his second chance elsewhere, because
I'd moved on by then.