Alchemical Warfare I: Fast Food!

Copyright 2002: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
When I sat down my intent was to calmly and dispassionately discuss two or three drug-related incidents that I was personally involved in, but even now, over thirty years later, I simply still can't find the dispassion needed to do so, so I'll merely relate the stories chronologically and let you draw whatever conclusions you want to. That's what people tend to do with drug issues these days anyway.

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 than once.

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.

"Evenin', captain."

"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 help tonight."

"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.

Copyright 2002 Ray Sarlin,

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Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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