CAMP TAJI, Iraq - In this Muslim nation where alcohol is taboo and liquor stores are regularly bombed for religious reasons, booze and drugs are easy to find - even for soldiers.
Hundreds of soldiers within the 1st Cavalry Division have been punished for alcohol or drug possession since the division's arrival in Iraq in April. About 65 of those are in the 39th Infantry Brigade. The cases have steadily rolled in over the past 10 months, dispelling theories that it's a symptom of stress building up over the deployment.
The U.S. Army's 5th Corps prohibited alcohol possession in this theater of war since day one with General Order No. 1 when the war began on March 19, 2003. The ban tries to cut down on disciplinary problems in the war zone. "As long as we have people in the Army, we'll have drugs and alcohol in the Army," said Lt. Col. Kirk Van Pelt, 3 rd Battalion commander of Arkansas' 39th Infantry Brigade.
The order hasn't prevented some soldiers from using alcohol or drugs.
In December, a 39th soldier shot his rifle through the roof of his trailer after his platoon sergeant busted him for drinking. Another required stitches after falling in the shower while drunk.
One night this summer a 1st Cavalry Division soldier attached to the 39th sneaked out of Fort Apache in Baghdad's deadly Adhamiya District to buy booze.
About the same time, two soldiers with the 39th wearing civilian clothes hopped in a humvee and drove it out Camp Taji's east gate. A unit was dispatched to stop the humvee, suspected of being stolen. Twelve soldiers in three humvees chased the renegade humvee. The platoon sergeant later said he didn't think three gun trucks had enough firepower to head into the area east of Camp Taji where the lone humvee disappeared.
Just as the patrol was leaving camp, it stopped the humvee as it came back through the gate and found two drunken noncommissioned officers returning from their joy ride. One had a grenade in his pocket.
Even when the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment - attached to the 39th - fought in the battle of Najaf in August, soldiers found, bought and consumed alcohol.
And on Wednesday, soldiers confiscated several bottles of whiskey from produce trucks driven by Iraqis delivering food to Camp Gunslinger's chow hall.
Commanders have ordered periodic searches of rooms to look for alcohol. If found, it's poured out.
And on Thursday a drugsniffing dog searched Camp Gunslinger's rooms and local Iraqi shops.
Nothing was found.
Soldiers hesitated to speak on the record about drinking because of recent violations. Those who know some of the soldiers under investigation champion their innocence. Others, taking the crackdown as a warning, dump whatever alcohol they had.
That alcohol is forbidden in the Iraqi theater, however, frustrates many soldiers.
One soldier, who asked not to be identified, said, "It's ridiculous that Joe [Infantry soldiers] has no way to blow off steam. This is the first war that alcohol was not allowed. I think it makes things worse."
However, others believe alcohol exacerbates an already stressful experience.
A Heavy Price
Soldiers found with alcohol or drugs risk demotion through nonjudicial punishment allowed in Article 15 of the Universal Code of Military Justice or face jail time through a court-martial, which closely parallels a civilian court. Violations could also be handled internally by a commander. Soldiers could lose pay and rank and serve jail time or get kicked out of the Army for violating the drug and alcohol policies. A large number of drug and alcohol cases have not come up in the Arkansas brigade, compared with other brigades, but it's had its share.
The 39th has criminally charged through a court-martial or punished through Article 15 about 65 of its 4,200 soldiers with illegal use or distribution of drugs or alcohol since arriving in Iraq.
By comparison, the more than 24,000-strong 1st Cavalry Division, to which the 39th is attached, has had 231 instances of soldiers violating the alcohol policy. Not all of those ended in judicial punishment or Article 15s. The division has also had 60 drug-related Article 15s and two drug-related summary courts-martial. The two courts-martial concerned 39th Brigade soldiers.
Investigations can take months to file charges or hand down nonjudicial punishment, and the severity of punishment is heavily weighted on the commander's recommendation. "The [Division] has had 231 alcohol-related incidents. This means that the chain of command has identified a soldier that violated General Order Number 1, but it does not necessarily mean that this incident ended in a court martial, Article 15 or other punishment," Lt. Col. James Hutton, division public affairs officer, wrote in an e-mail Friday. "It means that the chain of command knew of and appropriately dealt with 231 incidents of soldiers violating the alcohol policy."
Relatively Few Violations
"In a perfect world we would like to see zero cases of this type," said Lt. Col. John Edwards of Little Rock, the brigade's staff judge advocate. "But the fact we are where we are, the relatively low number of cases we've had is a testament to the quality of commanders and [noncommissioned officers] of this brigade."
Camp Taji and Camp Gunslinger have a larger population than most cities in south Arkansas. "Look at Taji and the number of people at Taji," said Col. Joseph Sarnicki, brigade surgeon. "Then look at a city the same size in Arkansas. We have less of a problem here than you see in a city this size."
Drug and alcohol use in the brigade is not something that surfaced late in the deployment. The brigade is expected to end its year-long deployment in March.
The four most severe cases to date occurred in April within one month of the brigade's arrival in Iraq. Two members of the 39th Support Battalion are now serving jail time. "Within a month or two after we landed here, drugs and alcohol appeared. It's available through the Iraqis," Sarnicki said. "You can go to any Iraqi who goes out of the wire [leaves camp] and he'd bring it in the next day."
The most recent wave of incidents happened within the last month.
Eighteen soldiers with 3rd Battalion's headquarters company and 206 Field Artillery Battalion are facing either nonjudicial punishment or court-martial for drug or alcohol use. Several of those solders were found drunk after charges for earlier violations were filed.
On Dec. 13, officials at Camp Taji searched buildings for Iraqi workers they were believed were hiding on camp and supplying drugs and alcohol to troops. "I think our biggest problem is not having reliable drug testing available," Van Pelt said.
Because urine samples have to travel to another location for testing, getting the results back can take too long. Van Pelt said that delay won't stop him from implementing a testing program, however. "It's a tool for me," Van Pelt said. "It will keep some soldiers who think about doing it from doing it," Van Pelt said. While testing is not readily available right now, Van Pelt said he expects it to become easier. It's just not the priority right now, he said. "We're trying to keep people from coming into our chow halls and blowing everybody up like in Mosul."
Easy To Find
"The longer we've been here, the more [soldiers] figure out the system," Van Pelt said. "They figure out how to find it." Brigade authorities have found some of the Iraqi guards who work security at camp gates, interpreters, contractors and Iraqi shop owners who have provided alcohol and drugs to soldiers. British contractors working at a power plant north of Camp Taji have been known to share their beer. A restaurant in the Green Zone sells beer to customers and allows soldiers to buy it as well.
It's not just booze, however.
Almost any drug imaginable can be easily bought in Iraq. Prescriptions don't exist; everything is sold over the counter, such as anabolic steroids, long banned in the United States and most European countries,
Not all the drugs found on soldiers come from Iraq.
Two soldiers are serving prison sentences for using and distributing drugs stolen from a 1st Cavalry Division medical aid station.
Pvt. 1st Class Brandon Roach and Pvt. 1st Class Anthony Winslow, both of Alpha Company, 39th Support Battalion, are two of four Support Battalion soldiers criminally charged as part of a drug ring for distributing and using narcotics and hashish within the brigade's first month in Iraq.
Roach was sentenced to nine months' confinement and Winslow was sentenced to two years. Both were reduced in rank and given bad-conduct discharges from the Army.
A third soldier was scheduled for court-martial, but the proceedings were indefinitely delayed when he attempted suicide. The fourth soldier, Spc. Ronald Baker, a medic accused of stealing and distributing the drugs, died while on patrol just weeks before his court-martial.
Roach was convicted of violating Article 112 of the Universal Code of Military Justice for possessing Percocet, using hashish and distributing Xanax and hashish to other soldiers.
Winslow was convicted of violating Article 112 for possessing and distributing steroids and morphine to the soldier who attempted suicide. Winslow was also found guilty of possessing Valium, amphetamine, Percocet, Darvocet and morphine.
The morphine was in auto-injectors used by military medics and doctors. Allegedly, Winslow injected himself with 10 of the morphine doses over a four day period and took an unknown number of Valium, amphetamine, Percocet and Darvocet doses.
Baker, whose charges were dropped after his death, was accused of being the source for the morphine and narcotics. According to court records, he was suspected of stealing the morphine and other narcotics from military medical units between April 15 and April 30
The most recent instances - in 3rd Battalion's Headquarters Company - concerned many of the same narcotics and hashish, a potent form of marijuana.
The case began several months ago when a soldier was accused of sexual misconduct while home on leave. He gave a videotape to Capt. Jody Callahan of Bryant, headquarters company commander, as proof of his innocence.
It was the wrong tape, however.
The video showed the soldier doing drugs and promising to take some back to other soldiers when he returned to Iraq. That led to allegations of drug and alcohol use by 18 soldiers.
They remain under investigation. "The cases are all entangled." Callahan said. "I've got a great group of soldiers for the most part. But every company has their troublemakers. Out of my 240 soldiers, 15 of them are implicated in these drug or alcohol cases."
The case also concerns a soldier from another 3 rd Battalion company and from the 206 th Field Artillery Battalion.
Callahan has locked down his company. The company is under curfew and soldiers are limited on when they can leave their living area. No one is allowed in the company area unless on company business. "I'm not saying it's over, because it's not. There will be an element that never stops," Callahan said. "What concerns me is someone knew this was going on and never said anything. When soldiers stop tolerating it, then it will stop."
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