The Daily Lex – April 28th

Zero tolerance

By lex, on July 24th, 2006

As a squadron commanding officer, I had to discharge two otherwise fine Sailors who had “popped positive” on urinalysis screens for having THC in their systems. They were good kids, from bad backgrounds – the service had been a lifeline for them, a chance to remove themselves from bad situations.

And I had cut that lifeline – sent one back to the gang infested streets of El Paso. The other returned to East Los Angeles. Truly, my hands were tied.

The Navy has a zero tolerance for drug abuse – it is the surest ticket out of the service, with an “other than honorable” discharge. An OTH won’t debar you from federal employment like a bad conduct discharge, nor is it equivalent to a felony conviction, like a court martial sentence would be. But neither will it move you, by itself, to the “must hire” queue in any prospective employer’s candidate search.

It was not always thus.

When I was a third class midshipman, I cruised aboard a Spruance class destroyer, and drug abuse was fairly rampant – this was back in the late 70′s, and then, as now, many of our Sailors were products of their time. At night an officer could head aft to the helo deck, and watch two or three lounge-abouts flick the burning remnants of a marijuana cigarette over the fantail, and do nothing about it – nothing at all.

Morale in the 80 man supply berthing, where we youngster mids made our racks, was terrible – everyone seemed to hate the Navy, at least among the junior folks – everyone was counting the days until they could get out. It was a real eye-opener.

In 1981, an Marine reserve crew in an EA-6B had a landing mishap (a ramp strike) aboard the USS Nimitz. In the mishap itself, and the resulting conflagration, 19 Sailors died. Eleven were found to have THC in their blood during the post-mortem.

The Navy got serious.

Everything in the Navy depends on teamwork, much of it done around heavy equipment that moves inexorably at great speed – some pieces of gear and environments I have seen could not have been better designed had it been done on purpose to claw and rake at unwary flesh, governed by a diminished mental capacity.

CNO sent out his famous “Not in My Navy,” missive, and routine drug screening began for the first time. CO’s were given temporary authority under “Project Upgrade” to discharge malcontents, malingers and ne’er-do-wells immediately. Anyone who swore they hated the Navy and wanted out as soon as possible was offered the instant opportunity – some took it gratefully (although these were in fact few), some were given it without asking.

The results were dramatic.

The next time I deployed, this time aboard an LST, the USS Barbour County , the difference in morale was incredible. Everyone knew that we had an unshakeable standard, that there was no flexibility, no second chances and for those inclined to gripe about their lot in life, an easy way out – to the ones who wanted to be a part of something special, an organization that stood for something, this was part of the proof that they were.

I remember distinctly the time when a signalman had been found in the act of smoking marijuana – there was a Captain’s Mast, a non-judicial procedure in which the CO is invested as prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, simultaneously. The accused was brought before the CO, and forced to stand at attention. We mids had been asked to watch the process, it being thought good for our professional education. An LST, designed to work in close proximity to the shore (and in fact to run up upon it) is a flat-bottomed boat, and in the relatively high seas between San Diego and San Francisco, our next port stop, she rolled around at an alarming rate and angle. The poor Sailor, standing at attention, was challenged to maintain his balance. Some of the junior mids found his efforts to maintain his footing unbearably humorous, and could not stifle a snigger. The CO wheeled around on them, and tongue-lashed them with great violence in front of the entire assembly until they dropped their eyes to their reddening cheeks in shame.

We got the message – this was a man’s life, about to take a turn very much for the worse. It was nothing to laugh about.

When I was a young lieutenant, and division officer, I had a Sailor who was always in trouble, and worse, who tried to lie his way out of it, transparently, ultimately unsuccessfully. He came from a broken background, his wife had chronic medical issues and the CO was resolute – he would be discharged. I thought this unfair in the larger view, and presented my case to the CO in private. He told me: “Lex, we’ve got a job to do. That man is taking up a disproportionate share of the efforts of a Chief Petty Officer who could be getting that job done, and training his replacements for the job the Navy will have to do 10 years from now. While we are debating about him, your Sailors who have a chance to make something of themselves are wondering where their division officer is. You can’t save them all – some you have to scrape off, for the good of the service.”

After talking with the CO, I no longer thought it unfair. I thought it hard.

And I began to realize – it can be a hard service.

When my turn came to wear the command pin, I had very much hoped not to have any of my Sailors fail the drug test, or otherwise fail to demonstrate a pattern of acceptable performance – These were other peoples sons and daughters, given to me in trust. They had dreams and goals and aspirations that they thought the Navy could help them reach. No one joins to be a failure. I tried to love each of them as though they were my own family, I wanted them all to succeed. Their dreams I tried to make my own.

Oh, I knew that I could never save all of them – some come to us with a lifetime of emotional baggage that cannot be overcome in the short time a Sailor has to prove that he can perform, or not. We are not a charity, not a half-way house.

But I also considered anyone who had to leave the service other than on his own terms as much a failure of my leadership, my ability to reach him and make a citizen of him, as much as his own failure to measure up.

So when one particular Sailor, in whom I had invested a deal of personal time and effort, and who came from a very difficult background, and had been showing great promise, popped positive on the urinalysis test, I was not angry – I was sad.

He hadn’t gone out with the idea of getting high – he’d had a few too many drinks, fell into a bad company, was offered drugs and used them. On Monday morning, his number came up for a random sweep. In a week’s time, he stood before me.

I’ve done a number of Captain’s Masts – and I never really enjoyed them. The mask of austere gravity and dreadful authority that the role required me to wear ill-comported with my ever-present awareness of my own manifest shortcomings, especially those of my youth. Some CO’s that I have seen were “flamers,” those who seemed to enjoy the humiliation of their accused. They’d scream and rant and gesture.

I was never one of those.

For this young man, I had nothing but regret – he and I both knew what he had done, and the penalty it carried. He and I both knew what he would be returning to, having left the Navy as a failure. The Navy, a place where the path and means to success is as brightly illumined as any I can imagine – having failed at this, what could he expect?

But my hands were tied, and he knew it – it was for the good of the service.


Filed under Leadership, Lex, Sea Stories

19 responses to “The Daily Lex – April 28th

  1. I only had one shipmate fail a random test and get tossed during my Navy career. I considered him a friend, we’d hang off duty here and there, and hated that he had made a really bad choice. He was smart as a whip (being a CT, you weren’t exactly working with people that squeaked by on their ASVAB) and had a couple of years of college under his belt at either Georgia or Georgia Tech, I can’t remember which one. But, as we were stationed in Hawaii, that stuff was literally everywhere, and yes, you’d have the opportunity to turn it down after it was offered up by one of the locals. Several times.

  2. I joined the Army during the late 70s when it was a rampant problem. A platoon leader was put in a wall locker which was then thrown from the third floor of a barracks in Germany. Times were bad. I knew many who were tossed out during those times, before the Army finally turned things around. In the 80s some SF guys were on the cocaine wagon, it being trendy and cool at the time. Many more SF team guys were tossed out for that than I would have believed before it became obvious that it just was not acceptable, even if you are a square-jawed, steely-eyed killer and hero of the oppressed.

    Lex’s take on Captain’s Mast is appropriate, it is life changing and should be conducted with due care and decorum fitting such an occasion. I have seen similar things happen to guys with similar backgrounds and it never is cause for celebration. It is, as he would say, to weep. You are watching a man at what is likely to be the high point of his life before he enters the downward turn from which he is unlikely to recover. I am touched by his empathy and concern for his fellow man. Typical Lex. Reminders of that which we have too soon lost.


  3. On my tour as a FRAMP instructor in VA-128 at NAS Whidbey Island our CO would hold Captain’s Mast for drug screen failures at Monday Quarters with the entire squadron present. At pronouncement of the processing for an OTH, the XO would call the squadron to attention and then about face. We as a whole turned our backs on the individual.
    It is a hard service. It has to be that.

    • So THAT’s where the Klingons got that from!

      Seriously though – that would be the worst part of it, almost as bad as the discharge itself. Your shipmates are done with you. Wow….

    • It was quite the experience the first time. Not having been in a squadron that large and never party to Captain’s Mast proceedings it was something alright.

  4. LT Rusty

    I only ever had to send one of my sailors to mast. I hated that I had to do it, but there was just no way to avoid it. It wasn’t for drugs, though.

    • A very long time ago, just before I put on AMH2, while aboard Independence, I got as far as XOI. Not pleasant at all. With all the soldiers, sailors and the Marine in the family, getting busted would have meant being shunned at home.

  5. oldafsarge

    During my time in the Air Force had a few experiences with the UCMJ, thank God never on the wrong side. In ’83 we had three airmen popped at “Golden Flow”. One of them belonged to me. She was a sh*t-hot troop, good at her job and a fast learner. Turns out she made a lot of bad choices as to what she liked doing off-duty. The other two were just average, not bad guys but no where near as sharp as my airman. The sergeant who “owned” the other two and myself had to write command-directed APRs (Airman Performance Reports) on these 3 airmen. The other sergeant wrote his two troops up as “walk on water” types. Not so good. That was the toughest APR I ever wrote. But I managed to write it such that while she was outstanding on the job, her choices of off-duty recreation made her judgement suspect. All three got their walking papers. After the CO had read the three APRs, the other sergeant and I got called in to stand before the Man. The CO thanked me for writing a solid APR, I’d painted the airman in such a way that showed that while she was good at her job, she couldn’t be trusted off-duty, and hence couldn’t really be trusted to maintain aircraft. The CO dismissed me and kept the other sergeant behind. When I got out of the CO’s office, the First Sergeant told me to wait up for a few minutes. Seems the CO wanted me to eaves drop on his a$$-chewing of the other sergeant. I guess pour “encourager les autres”.

    At any rate, in the mid-70s to early 80s it could be a rough time serving Uncle Sam. Drug use was rampant and it took a while to get things under control. Primarily by going to a zero-tolerance policy. It could be painful but the service did get things under control.

    Reading Lex’s story brought back some painful memories. But like Marcus said, it was also a reminder of why we loved the man. Lex brought a lot to the table: compassion, understanding and a firm commitment to the mission. This country needs more men like him.

  6. HMCS(FMF)

    I hated having to go with a Sailor or Marine to XOI or to see the Old Man for Mast. One of the most embarrassing was having a Corpsman going to Office Hours, and answering to a Marine CO about why he had stolen injectable steroids from a hospital – Talk about being put on the hot seat over the young man’s actions.

    Any time I had to go with a Sailor to Mast/Office Hours, I felt like I was having my leadership questioned. Some of my Sailors were good people that made a mistake… but there were a few that did not give a damn about what they did, it was all about themselves. I can’t remember the number of times that I saw a CO pick up the phone after Mast to personally talk to the Sailor’s spouse and let them know what had happened, and what he/she had to do… and it affect the marriage.

  7. cg23sailor

    I was an E-2 when I went to my (one and ONLY) XOI.
    It was for disrespect to an Officer.
    We had this green Ensign who thought that all Officers were the lords of Enlisted, and he wound up getting us “killed” in a training exercise. During the debrief and “lessons learned”, it was pointed out that there was a breakdown in CIC in-house communications. I spoke up that I was attempting to pass on the information (concerning an ESM intercept). The instructor acknowledged that the breakdown was not with me and looked pointedly at the Ensign(Who was the AAWC), who had ignored everything I was passing on.

    He turned redder than my hair and outside in the P-way, he cornered me and started chewing me out for “making him look bad”. Well, a guy can only take so much and I smarted off to him ( I know… I was wrong no matter the provocation.)
    He sent me up and it got as far as XOI.

    The XO was a good man, much akin to Lex’s style. He was present during the training scenario (As the TAO) and was there for the debrief. After hearing of what happened outside after the debrief, he told me…
    XO: You know what you said was wrong don’t you?
    ME: Yes Sir.
    XO: Won’t happen again will it?
    ME: No Sir!

    Charges dropped.
    He then had me wait outside his stateroom (still within earshot) as he ripped that Ensign a new one!

    My offending remark?
    “You know the difference between an E-2 and an O-1? I’ve been promoted at least once!”

    Unfortunately that XO left the ship about a month later and the new XO was perfect for the role of the Former CO in Lex’s “Speechifying” story. We had him the remainder of my time aboard and you can guarantee I didn’t stray from the straight and narrow.

    • LT Rusty


      My first chief mentioned that to me, back when I was a snot-nosed O-nothing. “Sir,” he says, “you know what the difference is between you and EMFN So-and-so?”

      He was a great chief. Brought me up right.

  8. Pogue

    I remember those bad old days in the ’70’s. The Navy had started getting a handle on race issues but still wasn’t serious about drug abuse. I recall drug testing starting somewhere around 1977, but there didn’t seem to be much change. There were some good performers on duty who felt their off duty activities were their own business. I think some commanders were afraid to find out how bad their problem was. The no tolerance policy didn’t come about till after I got out in ’79. By the time I got into the Army Guard in the mid 80’s no tolerance was well and truly in force, and it was a different world. Still is, I’m happy to say.

  9. John Blackshoe

    Another chapter in “Leadership lessons from Lex.”

  10. Interesting. I knew a guy who was a pothead before he went into the Navy, and after he came out of the Navy, but not while he was in the Navy. As he said, “You have to have all of yer wits about you at all times when aboard a Man O’ War.”

    He was rated Fireman, but spent most of his time in the Navy driving a forklift on the slippery decks of USS Ashtabula (he called her a 7-11 for aircraft carriers) with a palletful of bombs on the forks.

    This was before pee-in-the-jar tests, so he stayed straight on his own initiative.

  11. P.s. The guy of which I wrote is a Jew, so of course he is more rational than the average bear.

  12. When I got to Boot in June ’72 we all to pee in a bottle and list any drugs we had taken, including such things as Aspirin. Didn’t happen in the fleet for some reason.

    I got in dutch one time. I was in a hurry to get off the ship on a Friday to go on leave and forgot to wind and set the clocks around the ship (not the Chronometers in the Chart House) and one of them stopped while I was on leave. We had lost 3 QMs from the gang right after I came aboard Sylvania and the Chief seemed to blame that on me for some reason. So he ordered the 2nd Class to write me up. The 2nd class gave me a heads up on it as soon as I came back aboard and apologized, although he said I would have gotten extra duty for a week for my transgressions, if he’d any say in it.

    We got up to the XO’s mast, as we called it back then, and went through the folderol. As stood braced the XO went through my service jacket and started reading letters of recommendation and commendation aloud. The XO then asked the 2nd Class why I had been written up. When he said because he had been ordered to. he then asked if he agreed that I should have been written up. The answer was it should ahve been handled in the division. XO then turned to the DivO who also said it should have been handled in the Division. XO handed my service jacket back to the PNC and said to the assembly, “just give him some extra duty.”

    I got a week’s worth of extra duty out of it and thought then, as now, it was righteous. The QMC said that I should let it be a lesson to me. I noted later that day that he was a bit subdued. I heard later from one the Stewards that the QMC got a new one ripped and everyone along that passageway in Ossifers Country, Pantry included, could hear him.

  13. I think one of the challenges faced by all of the services post Vietnam was their forgetting to take out the trash, resulting in an inordinate number of Officers and Chiefs/Staff NCO’s making rank. There were days when one had to wonder how senior military leadership could have let this happen. Double standards and abject despisal of poor leadership were rampant throughout the Corps (1st Marine Brigade in mid to late 70’s, for reference), rendering a generally difficult and unpleasant environment to work in.

    After having been out a few years and having transitioned to the Preserves in another service, I chanced to go on det to Yuma and was pleasantly surprised to witness a complete overhaul in attitude and behavior. A change in leadership at the top had resulted in a change in SOP. I came to understand that some of the things we said and did in earlier years were simply not to be tolerated. For my part adjustments had already been made by personal choice, so there was never a moment when I had to question where I stood.

    Because of changes made at HQMC, today’s Marine Corps is a finer and more able Service, IMO, than it was post-Vietnam. Changes that I find gratifying…

  14. People should be punished for breaking the rules, but something must be done to rehabilitate the honor of those who did not receive Honorable Discharges. People served their country, and there is honor in that, in and of itself. But if one doesn’t have an Honorable Discharged, it’s as if nothing else matters. It should matter.

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