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Second chances prove rare in today's military

by Phillip O'Connor Modified: October 13, 2012 at 12:46 am •  Published: October 14, 2012

— 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.

Enforcement issues

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.”

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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