ALTUS — Julian M. Fuentes stood before the military judge, anguish on his face, as he apologized for purchasing LSD and sharing it with others stationed at Altus Air Force Base.
“Instead of acting like a child, I could have acted like an adult,” the 20-year-old airman said at a court martial earlier this month at the base located about 140 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. “Instead of doing what was fun, I could have done what's right.”
Faced with a bad-conduct discharge, a year's confinement and forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay for twelve months, Fuentes asked to be allowed to complete his four-year enlistment.
The judge, Lt. Col. Natalie D. Richardson, imposed a six-month sentence, a bad conduct discharge and then asked that Fuentes be considered for the Return to Duty program, a rehabilitation program designed to give a second chance to enlisted personnel who are court martialed.
His chances of being accepted are slim.
At a time when military downsizing is forcing out those with spotless records, commanders are increasingly reluctant to offer second chances to troubled service members.
Although more than 17,000 airmen have entered the boot camp-like Return to Duty program since it was created in the 1950s, only 167 have participated since 1993. Last year, the program housed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio admitted only seven.
“In today's environment, airmen must manage things under their control to remain competitive,” said Air Force spokesman Maj. Joel Harper. “This would include, first and foremost, exceptional performance. Criminal activity would obviously not help any airman's case.”
An Army study released earlier this year that examined the health and readiness of the force noted that the Army is approaching a “strategic reset,” that offered the opportunity to fill its ranks with good soldiers ahead of troop drawdowns and other constraints.
“In other words, the Army has an opportunity to deselect and separate those soldiers who do not meet professional standards of conduct required of an all-volunteer force,'' the study said. “The message is clear; the clock is ticking for soldiers who willingly commit crime and exhibit high-risk behavior.”
‘A public health crisis'
Substance abuse has been a growing concern for a military at war for more than a decade and whose members have been subjected to long and multiple deployments, frequent exposure to combat, physical injury and post-traumatic stress.
A study by the Institute of Medicine released last month declared substance abuse in the military “a public health crisis.”
The study found that while rates of both illicit and prescription drug abuse were low, the rate of medication misuse was rising. In 2002, 2 percent of active duty personnel reported misusing prescription drugs. In 2008, the latest year for which figures were available, the number had reached 11 percent.
Last year in the Army alone, 5,769 soldiers were charged with felony drug crimes. Some lesser drug crimes, such as marijuana use, are often handled by unit commanders through nonjudicial or administrative means and are not included in that number.
At Altus, 35 military members have been convicted at courts martial since 2001 on drug charges.
Numbers on drug convictions at Tinker Air Force Base and Fort Sill, the state's two largest military installations, were not available for this story.
Despite a zero-tolerance policy for drug use in the military, the rule hasn't always been enforced. That's been especially true as demand soared for troops to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some leaders were willing to put up with misconduct from soldiers who they depended on when deployed.
“A commander is going to make some decisions that are going to get him downrange and back safe and build the most competent fighting force he can when he needs them,'' said Jay Khalifeh, Fort Sill's substance abuse program manager. “We're more willing to justify keeping soldiers in … when we have more boots on the ground and we need them at that time.”
But commanders now are less willing to look the other way at such misconduct. For example, in 2010, 40 percent of soldiers who sought outpatient treatment for drugs or alcohol at Fort Sill's post counseling center had failed more than one drug test.
“That has stopped,” Khalifeh said. “The commanders are getting rid of soldiers now. This came from the general saying we're going to be more proactive in taking care of soldiers. But those who can't be helped? We're here to build a better, ready Army, not to maintain soldiers incapable of rehabilitating.”
Of the 6,110 drug tests administered by the Oklahoma National Guard in the last year, 97 soldiers failed, some more than once, primarily for marijuana. Air National Guard figures were not available for this story.
Guardsmen who test positive for marijuana are counseled by a commander and, depending on their rank, can seek an evaluation and treatment. A decision on whether they can remain in the guard rests with the commander. Over the last seven years, an average of 50 Oklahoma National Guard soldiers a year have been dismissed for drug use.
“If a soldier doesn't want to get help for a drug issue, he's going to be kicked out of the service,” said guard spokesman Lt. Col. Max Moss. “But if the soldier has made a mistake and the regulation permits his retention and he's willing to get help, then that soldier is likely to be retained.”
According to the 2012 Army study, such high-risk behaviors erode discipline and have a direct impact on the readiness of the force. Last year alone, criminal activity and high-risk behavior reduced the deployability of more than 18,000 soldiers, or 2.6 percent of the Army. Those figures do not include serious misdemeanors such as drunken driving or being absent without leave, which would further have affected troop readiness.
Good order, discipline
At this month's court martial, Fuentes acknowledged a friend mailed 10 doses of LSD to him in July, and that he'd shared it with two other airmen in the base dorms and while at a club and a concert in Dallas, where he also used the drugs Ecstasy and methylone.
The fuel truck driver with the 97th Logistic Readiness Squadron told the judge he was disgusted with himself and had brought discredit on the Air Force and his family.
“This is his first mistake,'' said Fuentes' father, who traveled from Los Angeles for the trial. “He's been that kid that everyone loves. I know he's going to be heartbroken if he doesn't finish.”
His lawyer noted that character letters from fellow service members and others described Fuentes as a hard worker dedicated to his job. He said his client had taken responsibility for his actions, cooperated with investigators and agreed to testify in next month's scheduled courts martial of the other two airmen.
“He's not worried about confinement,'' said the defense counsel, Capt. Christopher R. Lanks. “He's worried about making things right.”
The Air Force prosecutor, Capt. Eric G. Hergenroeder, argued against leniency. He pointed to Fuentes' “brazen and cavalier attitude,” the seriousness of the drugs involved and his continuous course of criminal conduct in introducing drugs to Altus airmen who otherwise wouldn't have had access to them. He accused the airman of “poisoning the dorms at Altus.”
“No one was going to stop him and nothing was going to get in his way,” Hergenroeder said.
“He reaches out for LSD, buys it, gets it to Altus, distributes it. This is a series of conscious, calibrated decisions.”
“He needs to be an example here, too,” Hergenroeder said. “It's about good order and discipline.”
The judge's ruling still must be approved by the base commander, Col. Anthony Krawietz, who could lessen the sentence. A decision is expected by the end of the month.