Zero Tolerance

Posted by Lex, on Sat July 24, 2004 at 07:00 PM


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.


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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Life, Navy, Neptunus Lex

2 responses to “Zero Tolerance

  1. Pingback: Index – The Best of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Neptunus Lex: Essays On Leadership | The Lexicans

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