Six of 10 sailors killed when a Navy war plane crashed onto the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz May 26 had drugs in their systems, according to autopsy results revealed yesterday by two congressmen.
Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. did not deny that some of the dead may have said: "I can categorically state that drug use or abuse did not contribute to the tragic crash."
Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, touched off the controversy by complaining in a letter to Lehman that "I have learned that a majority of those killed on the Nimitz had drugs in their systems at the time of the crash."
Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, specified that Navy officials had told him that pathologists had detected "traces of marijuana" in the bodies of six of the 10 dead sailors. Three dead Marine officers in the EA6 radar-jamming jet that crashed had no drugs in their systems, Whitehurst said.
The body of the fourth marine was lost at sea, apparently hurled out of the jet and overboard from the impact of the crash.
Whitehurst declared yesterday that "it would be a false conclusion to assume that those six crew members were smoking pot on the flight deck of the Nimitz that night. That marijuana could have been ingested any time up to 30 days before."
Navy officials said some medical authorities believe that traces of marijuana remain in the bloodstream for at least 30 days after use. The Nimitz had left Norfolk 11 days before the accident.
By last night, the question of who or what caused the crash that also injured 48 men on the Nimitz had broadened into how extensively drugs are used within the armed services. A hearing on the matter is scheduled tomorrow afternoon before the House defense appropriations subcommittee.
Navy officials said that Lehman felt confident in denying categorically that drugs contributed to the tragedy because the crash investigation indicates the cause was pilot error, not anything done by the deck crew.
The pilot evidently came in too high for his plane's tail hook to be snagged by the arresting wire and veered to the right just above the flight deck where his jet nicked parked planes and went out of control. A series of collisions with other aircraft set off a fireball of fuel and ammunition.
In his letter, Addabbo told Lehman that "to be extent the drug-induced human error proves to be the cause of either the crash or the high toll of deaths and injuries, the tragic human consequences may well have been prevented or at a minimum greatly reduced."
Lehman lambasted Addabbo for that suggestion by declaring in a letter to the subcommittee chairman:
"To raise the issue of possible drug use as a factor on the flight deck during the most difficult period when the crew of Nimitz was valiantly fighting the fire and limiting the damage to their ship is, in my opinion, a disservice to the 14 men killed. . . ."
Lehman and Addabbo agreed in their exchange of letters that drug abuse in the armed forces is a major problem.
"The incidence of drug and alcohol abuse in society are [sic] too high, and they are too high in Navy and the Marine Corps as well. This problem has my attention, and it has the attention of the leadership of the uniformed services as well.
"It is a most difficult problem but one that we are working hard to diminish. . . . We in the military departments receive in our services the products of the schools and lifestyles of our nation."
Addabbo's letter said that "drug abuse and alcohol abuse not only impair the lives of their users but impact adversely on military readiness. Studies show that the Navy and Marine Corps have the highest incidence of drug usage among the military services.
"For example, a recent report by the Department of Defense reveals that 60 percent of all Navy and Marine Corps personnel of pay grade E5 and below use drugs, excluding alcohol, for nonmedical purposes."
Addabbo, drawing from that same Pentagon report, said one in four of those junior-grade enlisted people suffers "some degree of work impairment" because of drugs, and one in 25 "is actually dependent upon drugs."
The report Addabbo cited was written for the Pentagon by Burt Associates of Bethesda and released last year. The firm assessed drug and alcohol use at 81 military installations around the world and surveyed 19,582 active duty soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to determine trends.
The rank of E5 is an Army sergeant, a Navy second class petty officer, a Marine sergeant and an Air Force staff sergeant. The Burt Associates report gave these figures on drug use for the 12 months prior to the survey:
Marine Corps, 61 percent; Navy, 59 percent; Army, 53 percent, and Air Force 33 percent.
By far the most common drug used was marijuana. In averaging the percentages of drug use by the services, the report said 49 percent had used marijuana in the previous 12 months and 37 percent in the previous 30 days. For heroin, the figures were 2 percent for the 12-month period and 1 percent for the 30 days.
The first witness at the subcommittee hearing is scheduled to be Army Brig. Gen. William C. Louisell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug and alcohol abuse prevention.