Alarmed by rising use of Ecstasy and other "party drugs" by military personnel at bases nationwide and abroad, the services are striking back by increasing random drug testing, booting out first-time offenders and court-martialing anyone caught selling narcotics.
Although the number of personnel who test positive for drug use still is tiny in an active-duty force of 1.4 million, military brass are worried that the growing popularity of a new crop of drugs will reverse the military's two-decade-long pattern of declining drug use among its troops.
"This is one of the most serious threats to shipboard safety we've seen since the drug testing program began" in 1981, said Capt. Stephen Squires, skipper of the amphibious transport Denver.
Squires required all 380 officers and enlisted sailors to submit a urine sample as the ship steamed back to San Diego after a port call in May to the party town of Cabo San Lucas in Baja California Sur.
To Squires' delight, none of his crew tested positive, although in the last year he has recommended that 10 crew members, including one officer, be discharged for drug use.
Like numerous other ship captains, he has ordered more testing on weekends and Mondays to catch any sailor who may have used Ecstasy or other drugs, particularly at weekend "rave parties," where such drugs often are sold.
A synthetic drug developed in Germany before World War I to aid weight loss, Ecstasy is a cross between methamphetamine and LSD. Other club drugs include the banned tranquilizer ketamine and Rohypnol, also known as roofies or the forget-me-pill.
Last month, Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, sent a message to all Navy commanders in the region ordering them to redouble efforts to stop the spread of these drugs.
The problem is not confined to any one branch of the service or any single base.
Among recent cases are a Marine at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina convicted of selling Ecstasy to other Marines; a senior airman with clearance to the super-secret facility at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., accused of Ecstasy trafficking; 11 soldiers in the elite 16th Military Police Brigade at Ft. Bragg, N.C., accused of Ecstasy, LSD and marijuana use, including two accused of being dealers; and five cadets at the Air Force Academy charged with possession of Ecstasy, with two being sent to prison.
Along with increased testing, Navy officials have begun sending undercover agents to rave parties, which often are large all-night gatherings with dancing and loud "techno" music.
The Navy here also is attempting to dispel two widespread myths about Ecstasy: that it has no long-term effect and that it cannot be detected in a urine test.
Senior enlisted personnel are being asked to counsel younger sailors that Ecstasy use is illegal and can lead to brain damage.
"We'd rather get out in front of the problem than clean up after it," said Cmdr. Maureen Alexander of the Navy's drug and alcohol program management office.
Navy officials are particularly concerned about drug use aboard aircraft carriers, where young sailors are given responsibility for guiding $40-million warplanes around a crowded and noisy flight deck.
A carrier flight deck often is called the most dangerous workplace in the military, where any lapse of concentration can be fatal.
It was a crash aboard the carrier Nimitz in 1981 that led the Defense Department to institute random drug testing. Although the crash was not caused by drug use, autopsies showed that six of 14 sailors and Marines killed recently had smoked marijuana.
Four sailors aboard the carrier Stennis were busted this year after undercover agents bought several thousand dollars worth of Ecstasy and other drugs from them.
One of the Stennis sailors has been sentenced to 40 months in prison, the second to 30 months; both were given dishonorable discharges. The other two are awaiting trial.
"We popped a guy on the Stennis who was doing 10 [tablets of Ecstasy and ketamine] a night," said Michael Tompkins, supervising special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigation Service office in San Diego. "His brain was fried."
A lieutenant commander aboard the carrier Constellation, who had a spotless 19-year record, was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of running an Ecstasy sales ring. One enlisted sailor also got five years, and another, with lesser involvement, four months.
"Within the past year, club drugs have become our No. 1 court-martial prosecution for drugs," said senior prosecutor Lt. Cmdr. Paul LeBlanc, adding that all 12 of his West Coast prosecutors are handling such cases.
In the last 12 months, 70 Marines from bases in Southern California and Yuma, Ariz., have tested positive for Ecstasy and have been recommended for immediate discharge under less than honorable conditions, officials said.
The Air Force has begun random weekend testing of personnel at its bases in Hawaii, Alaska and Asia. Clubs in the entertainment zone in Waikiki, Hawaii, where Ecstasy is thought to be sold have been put off-limits.
A stimulant and hallucinogenic, Ecstasy is increasingly popular among civilians ages 18 to 30, the age group that constitutes 75% of military personnel.
Of 2.3 million urine tests given to military personnel last year, 1,070 came back positive for Ecstasy, a tenfold increase over 1998.
Newer recruits are thought to be particularly susceptible to the blandishments of drug dealers. Many are away from home for the first time. All have a steady income; a single pill of Ecstasy can cost as much as $30.
Rave parties (sometimes with names like Naughty Nurse Night or Naughty Nightgown Night) offer the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.
"I can't tell you the number of [civilian] dealers who have told us that military personnel are their best customers," Tompkins said.
The military added Ecstasy to its drug-testing screen in the 1990s for personnel stationed in Europe. The world's supply of Ecstasy is manufactured in illicit laboratories in Belgium and the Netherlands and distributed primarily by the Russian and Israeli mafias, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Unlike marijuana and cocaine, which remain the top two drugs used by military personnel, Ecstasy moves through the body's system quickly and thus detection has been spotty.
In most commands, Monday is a busy day and many officers do not want to distract personnel by requiring urine tests. By Tuesday, Ecstasy taken at a Saturday party might be undetectable.
After his conviction, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Loeh, who had researched Ecstasy on his computer during deployment in the Western Pacific, told investigators, "Statistics showed me only 5% of urinalyses are done on Monday, so I'm playing the odds."
To change those odds, more tests are being done on weekends and Mondays, military drug specialists are devising a more sensitive test to catch Ecstasy even several days after ingestion, and dogs are being trained to detect Ecstasy in lockers and work spaces.
"I don't care if my people say, 'My captain is such a jerk. He's always testing me for drugs,' " Squires said. "I don't care about that at all. My goal is to get them not to do it."