It wasn't always a drug-free Air Force

An Airman sits in a holding cell at a security forces squadron after being convicted of wrongfully using drugs.  (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

An Airman sits in a holding cell at a security forces squadron after being convicted of wrongfully using drugs. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- As the newly assigned manager overseeing the base drug education and testing program, it's interesting to see the "generational view" on drug testing.

Although more than 95 percent of those selected for drug testing understand the program and are impressively patient when they report to our facility for testing; especially in light of the challenges from the various missions and the installation being so spread out. However, sometimes leadership detects an underlying tone that drug testing is an inconvenience or may not be worth the time.

Besides being an Air Force civilian employee, I'm also a 24-year retired Air Force veteran. I remember the pre-1981 era before military drug programs were mandated.

Following the Vietnam era and the military draft, there was a culture of illegal drugs. Drugs were rampant at my first two tours as an Airman from 1977 to 1981, both where I lived and worked. In light of the caliber of today's Air Force, it's hard to believe, but the environment was not professional.

In 1977, while at Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines, I will never forget the time a member of my squadron got caught for illegal drugs in his dorm room. He had left marijuana on top of his dresser out in the open and all he received was a letter of reprimand. Unlike today's policy of "zero tolerance", the policy back then seemed as if a small amount of an illegal drug was no big deal. Consequently, you chose your friends carefully - not necessarily from a legal standpoint, but a trouble and safety standpoint.

Two years later while stationed at Rhein-Mein AB, Germany, I worked with two individuals who were open about taking illegal drugs; one was passive and the other was aggressive. Everyone knew it and just avoided them. The problem was that the rest of the shift had to pick up the slack for them.

During these four years, which were prior to having a Department of Defense drug testing program, illegal drugs were the elephant in the room. Everyone knew they were there, but no one talked about it. Trust at work and on base was a big issue.

The turning point for the DoD came on May 26, 1981 following a major aircraft accident on the USS Nimitz killing 14 and injuring 48 others on-board. Officials listed damages at $150 million which included the seven destroyed and 11 damaged aircraft. The post accident investigation revealed Nimitz crewmen's drug use possibly contributed to the disaster.

The current DoD Drug Demand Reduction Program was mandated in 1981 and given the mission to deter military and civil service members from using prohibited drugs. Consequently, policy and procedures were developed, personnel were hired and the drug testing program was initiated world-wide.

According to a 2008 report, DoD Status of Drug Use in the Department of Defense Personnel, published by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, 69 percent of positive drug tests fell among a "high risk population." The high risk population consists of enlisted males between 18-25 years of age -- a population that only comprises 35 percent of the DoD. The Air Force "Smart Testing" software focuses on this high risk population.

The goal of the DDRP is to keep illegal drug use to less than 2 percent of those tested. According to the report cited above, the Air Force Active Duty High Risk Illicit Drug Positive Rate was only 0.5 percent.

According to Col. Patrick McClelland, 31st Fighter Wing vice commander, who chairs the Cross Functional Oversight Committee on illegal and illicit drug use at Aviano AB, the goals are prevention and deterrence.

"We educate the population on illegal drug use and the consequences to prevent it in the first place," said Colonel McClelland. "At the same time, we detect illegal and illicit drug use through drug testing and other means to ensure a drug free environment."

At Aviano AB, the committee consists of members from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Adolescent Substance Abuse Counselor, 31st Security Forces Squadron investigations, and a representative first sergeant and commander.

I'm just glad that the DoD has drastically changed the culture of illegal drug use and invests over $16 million annually to ensure a drug-free environment. To quote a colleague of mine, James Taylor from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., "In God we trust, all others must be drug tested."