Robert Novak's Aug. 5 op-ed column, "Our First Casualties," discussed the search for and recovery of the crew of the Army's DeHavilland RC7 aircraft that crashed in Colombia on July 23. I am concerned about Mr. Novak's disregard for the facts and his lack of appreciation for the difficulty of the operation, as well as an apparent lack of concern for the families of the crew.

From the outset, the Army's primary concern was for the soldiers and their families, and we kept the soldiers' next of kin informed every step of the way.

Mr. Novak alludes to a "media blackout" of this operation and insinuates that this was due to the "black" nature of the mission. This is a baseless accusation. There was no "media blackout." We were as open with the media as possible while respecting the feelings and privacy of all the families, and dealing with the realities of a most difficult search and recovery operation.

Out of consideration for all families, the Department of Defense has had a long-standing policy of not inviting media to the return of remains at Dover Air Force Base. This is a difficult event for families, and the decision is not based on the convoluted reason Mr. Novak suggested.

Mr. Novak has no appreciation for the difficulty of a search and recovery operation of this nature. The aircraft went down in a remote, heavily forested, mountainous region of southern Colombia. It came to rest on a 45-degree slope at 7,500 feet above sea level on the side of a 12,000-foot mountain. Bad weather and extremely poor visibility at the crash site compounded the already difficult task of reaching the site and searching for survivors. It is extremely difficult and heart-wrenching in these situations to make the decision to call off the rescue operation and begin recovery operations.

Our soldiers serve in some difficult and dangerous environments around the world, and it is a great loss when one of them gives up his or her life in the service of our nation. However, our soldiers realize the importance of what they are doing, and they are proud of their commitment and the sacrifice they make. It is regrettable that Mr. Novak saw fit to take a tragic event for our nation, our Army and five Army families, and misrepresent the facts and motives surrounding that event.

JOHN M. KEANE

General, U.S. Army

Vice Chief of Staff

Arlington

Bernard Aronson's Aug. 5 op-ed column, "War in Colombia: The U.S. Role," omitted America's biggest contribution to the narco-conflict ravaging that nation. He heaps blame on aggressive communist guerrillas and chastises the United States for not bolstering the Colombian economy, forging a bipartisan policy or mobilizing international support.

But these are irrelevant factors compared with the core fact: U.S. drug policies in South America, on the streets of Washington and across our country have led to the mess in Colombia.

The United States has largely succeeded in recent years in shutting down coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru. But as cocaine consumption remains high in the United States, cultivation has shifted to Colombia, with prices climbing thanks to the reduction in neighboring supply. This has poured millions of additional dollars into the pockets of Colombia's largest guerrilla group, the FARC, which largely controls the drug trade. With increased funds, the rebels are coming closer to toppling the Colombian government.

To prevent this, the United States now provides, annually, almost $300 million in anti-drug assistance to the government, including a growing number of military advisers and reconnaissance equipment such as the plane that crashed last month.

Our policies, then, essentially underwrite the expanding rebel military operations. To confront those operations, we further militarize the government. We're arming both sides.

Meanwhile, drug treatment programs in America accommodate only about 50 percent of hard-core users, and treatment is available to just one in 10 prison inmates who need it. The District's treatment budget dropped 37 percent between 1993 and 1998, and some 1,200 people are on the city's waiting list for methadone maintenance.

Until we address demand at home with adequate treatment -- then decriminalize drugs as a first step toward possible legalization -- we can save our breath and money blaming it all on Colombian guerrillas and the policy hair-splitting in Congress and at the State Department.

MIKE TIDWELL

Takoma Park

The writer counsels homeless drug addicts.