Camp Lejeune Marines are searched for contraband during a March 4 health-and-comfort inspection at the 8th ESB barracks. (Lance Cpl. Jackeline M. Perez Rivera / Marine Corp)
A Marine is apprehended March 3 after contraband was found in his living quarters in the barracks of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C. (Lance Cpl. Jackeline M. Perez Rivera / Marine Corp)
Leaders at II Marine Expeditionary Force are ramping up counter-drug efforts after 450 Marines popped positive for drugs — including marijuana, spice, cocaine and ecstasy — during a seven month period in 2013.
North Carolina Marines can expect more “health and comfort inspections,” random vehicle checks and searches of their quarters with drug-sniffing dogs as leaders take action to weed out drug use in the ranks, officials with II MEF told Marine Corps Times. There will also be random vehicle checkpoints, increased law enforcement presence and patrols, and increased actions at points of entry into Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The goal: to eradicate drug use by building on the counter-drug campaign launched in 2012 by Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, II MEF’s commanding general.
“When I took over II MEF, all indications were — to me, from talking to local law enforcement, talking to NCIS — that we had a drug problem,” Fox said. “So I just made it very clear that we would test for urinalysis, we would inspect the barracks and inspect vehicles, and we would do gate searches to deter those Marines on the bubble, who haven’t decided whether they want to be good or bad, that it’s probably better to be good, because we’re going to catch you.”
The tools that II MEF will use to stop the problem include a new counter-drug detachment within 2nd Law Enforcement Battalion, based at Camp Lejeune, , said Lt. Col. Eric Young, 2nd LEB’s commanding officer. It’s made up of seven Marines who coordinate with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the base Provost Marshal’s Office. Together, the three agencies form the Counter Drug Task Force, which plans and executes the MEF’s counter-drug campaign efforts.
The effort to weed out drug use is one element of the broader “Reawakening” campaign to reinvigorate Marines’ focus on core values, said Lt. Col. Cliff Gilmore, a spokesman for II MEF. It’s not immediately clear whether MEF or law enforcement officials have seen an increase in drug-related crime.
Fox, who has served 37 years, said there’s nothing new in the fact that some Marines abuse drugs. It’s a behavior people learn in society and bring into the Corps, he said. But the MEF has made progress in decreasing illicit drug use simply by talking about it, he said. That includes briefing everyone from senior enlisted Marines to spouses.
That’s why the MEF is implementing a four-phase approach to deterring drug use in its units.
“This is what brings attention to it and deters people from doing it,” Fox said. “Human beings don’t like to get caught, so if they kind of feel that they’re going to get caught, they won’t do it.”
Deterrence through education
Every II MEF Marine can expect to be called upon to combat drug abuse in the ranks, said Capt. Binford Strickland, a spokesman for II MEF.
“Deterring illicit drug activity is a leadership imperative,” he said. “Marines can expect to participate in more events meant to ensure security, military fitness and good order and discipline.”
Some of those events will become expectations of unit leadership as commanders roll out the four-part guide — the blueprint for eliminating drug use in the ranks. The phases build upon one another.
Here’s how each phase will work, according to II MEF officials:
Education. The campaign starts with educating command teams and individual Marines about the harmful effects of illegal drug use, the legal repercussions of getting caught with drugs or having them in one’s system, and how II MEF is prepared to support commanders.
Shaping. During this phase, Marines will have the opportunity to drop off unused prescription drugs in drop boxes. They’ll also have the chance to turn in illegal substances anonymously.
Decisive operations. This phase includes engagements designed to target specific areas of vulnerability in order to deter illicit drug use throughout the MEF.
Sustained deterrence. This stage incorporates all the phases and ensures that the MEF continually evaluates the campaign to ensure that ongoing counter-drug measures remain effective while striving for zero-percent drug use.
“Leaders see this as an additional opportunity to engage their Marines and reinforce core values we hold true while gaining further understanding of their unit,” Strickland said.
The MEF has also been increasing urinalysis testing. From May to December of last year, 450 Marines tested positive for illicit drugs, said Michael Bermes, II MEF’s director of force prevention.
The No. 1 offense was marijuana, which accounted for more than 70 percent of the positive results. But 62 Marines tested positive for spice and another 53 for cocaine.
Ecstasy, steroids, heroin and the street drug Molly, which has been responsible for several deaths at recent concerts, account for the remaining 14 positive results.
Commands are now required to test a minimum of 10 percent of their personnel every month and 100 percent of their personnel annually, Strickland said. As MEF officials boost urinalysis testing, they’ve seen a corresponding increase in positive test results, he said.
“But we anticipate a subsequent decline as deterrent measures and the overarching message take effect,” he added.
Even though Marines who tested positive for drugs represent less than 1 percent of the population of II MEF, those who use illicit drugs lower unit readiness, hinder unit cohesion and are detrimental to maintaining esprit de corps.
A troubled location
Camp Lejeune is not far from the I-95 corridor, the major north-south drug transportation route on the East Coast. In fact, the base is about halfway between illegal drug entry points in southern Florida and large, urban population centers in the Northeast, said Supervisory Special Agent Curtis Evans Jr., with the NCIS Carolinas Field Office.
Increased narcotic interdiction, checkpoints and patrols on the interstate have caused some drug traffickers to seek alternative routes, Evans said. Many drug runners have turned to U.S. Route 17, which roughly parallels the interstate highway from Florida to Virginia, to escape detection. And Route 17 passes right by Camp Lejeune, leaving the base and the surrounding community especially vulnerable to large quantities of illegal drugs.
“This route unfortunately provides easy distribution of narcotics to the Camp Lejeune area,” Evans said. “[It] passes directly through the living area of many families of our active-duty personnel.”
To further support the MEF’s counter-drug campaign, NCIS has partnered with other federal, state and local agencies, Strickland said. NCIS serves as the executive agent for the Counter Drug Task Force, with 2nd LEB supporting both NCIS and the PMO.
Members of 2nd LEB also provide personnel to unit leaders to support inspections and serve as their liaisons with the provost marshals and NCIS agents, according to Young, their commanding officer.
Those partnerships allow for information to be shared more easily. Officials with the II MEF Staff Judge Advocate’s Office said information gatherers, those who carry out patrols and searches and man checkpoints, will drive follow-on actions, including, perhaps, administrative separations or courts-martial.
“If someone is proven guilty of illicit drug use, possession or distribution, they could face a maximum punishment of 15 years confinement, total forfeiture of pay and a dishonorable discharge, depending on the type and quantity of the drug,” Strickland said.
For Marines concerned that this massive campaign infringes on their privacy, Fox said it comes with the territory for anyone who serves in the military.
“I live in a government house — it’s privatized housing. But if somebody wants to walk in and inspect it, that’s an authority and ... I don’t have any problem with that,” he said.
That does not mean they don’t respect Marines’ concerns. There’s a difference, he said, between the anti-drug campaign and harassment. They’re not going to be knocking on Marines’ barracks doors every two hours to wake them, as if they’re in boot camp with few rights.
“This is to make sure that they understand we care about their habitability, we care about what they have in their room,” Fox said. “This is the Marine Corps — you didn’t join the Boy Scouts.”
Staff writer Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.