A sweeping drug probe at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda has resulted in the disciplining of at least nine U.S. Navy hospital corpsmen and officers for using marijuana or cocaine. Ten others have been ordered to appear before courts-martial, and almost 100 others are under investigation, according to Navy sources.
The investigation, triggered Sept. 3 when undercover police in Montgomery County arrested a young corpsman on drug charges, has sparked complaints from some of those named that the medical center is more interested in recording increased numbers of drug convictions than in ensuring fairness to the accused.
The nine persons already disciplined administratively have received penalties ranging from rank reductions and forfeiture of a half-month's pay to dismissal from the hospital corps, the sources said.
Ten other persons set to be court-martialed are either charged with more serious offenses or have prior drug offenses on their records, according to the sources. If convicted when the proceedings begin next year, they could be dishonorably discharged from the Navy.
Navy sources said others are expected to be charged soon.
The investigation began when a young corpsman, identified as Brent Calvin Patterson, 21, was arrested by Montgomery County police and turned over to Navy officials. Patterson then gave investigators the names of 110 colleagues at the Naval Medical Center, alleging that he used drugs with them, saw them using drugs, or knew that they were drug users, according to various sources familiar with the case.
Many of those named by Patterson have denied the charges, and three have been exonerated.
"He Patterson came up with probably every name he knew in the Navy," said James Klimasky, a private attorney hired by three of the accused corpsmen.
'He Patterson certainly caused an investigation," said Capt. James J. Quinn, commanding officer of the sprawling Navy complex on Wisconsin Avenue just inside the Capital Beltway. "It Patterson's accusations required someone to take a hard, hard look at it. We went on the assumption that everything he said was true and we had NIS Naval Investigative Services investigate it."
Almost 800 hospital corpsmen are employed at the medical center, administering injections, emptying bedpans and performing other medical-related functions. The center has a total of about 1,500 military and 500 civilian employes.
The vigorous pursuit of Patterson's allegations coincided with a Navy-wide crackdown on drug use laid down one year ago by now-retired Adm. Thomas B. Hayward with the warning: "Not on my watch, not in my division, not in my Navy." The campaign has cut drug use among enlisted men in half, according to Navy statistics.
At Bethesda, Quinn said, the crackdown has led to increased use of drug-sniffing dogs at enlisted men's barracks, random urine checks each month, and tough penalties when drug users are caught. An indication that the campaign is succeeding, he said, is that unlike previous times, spot checks by the dogs earlier this month found no illicit drugs. He also said the last two urinalysis tests, for December and November, found no drug users.
But the crackdown at Bethesda has also led to charges that officials ignore exonerating evidence, impose penalties that are excessive for the crimes, and that some hard-line captains ignore past good behavior in meting out harsh punishments. Some of the 110 persons named by Patterson -- many of whom have retained private lawyers--complain that their commanders, anxious to purge "druggies" from the navy, are taking the word of a single informant, Patterson.
Also, Patterson's private attorney, Rockville lawyer James Kolb, raised the possibility -- in preliminary motions before Patterson's court-martial, which opens next month -- that Patterson may not have implicated the others voluntarily. "That is part of the case, as to whether or not there was coercion," Kolb said.
"It's a witch hunt, just to show they're taking positive action," said Corpsman Harry Spencer Lawton, whom Capt. Quinn convicted of using marijuana Nov. 12 after a brief administrative hearing known as a captain's mast. Lawton was one of those named by Patterson in a formal statement as having "used hash many times." While Lawton denied the charge, he was penalized with a pay grade demotion, extra duty for 30 days, restriction to the base for 30 days, and forfeiture of one-half month's pay for two months.
Lawton also was removed from the medical corps at Quinn's recommendation, essentially reducing him to the rank of seaman and making him eligible to be shipped out to sea at any time. He said the changed circumstances forced him to cancel his planned Nov. 10 wedding. And now, after Adm. Hayward denied his appeal, Lawton, who was raised in Illinois, is desperately trying to get U.S. Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) to intervene on his behalf.
A spokesman in Percy's Springfield office said the request is being reviewed.
Lawton, and others who asked not to be identified, are questioning the tactics of the NIS, whose agents were charged with investigating Patterson's allegations. At his interview by NIS, Lawton said he denied using marijuana or any other drugs during his time in the service. He said the agent took no notes. "I even went to the point of checking under his coat, to make sure he had no recording devices," Lawton said.
At his captain's mast, Lawton said the captain produced a one-page interview report signed by the agent. The interview notes said "Lawton admitted that he smoked marijuana . . . from 15 May 1981 until 1 September 1981." Lawton denied ever saying this to the agent.
Another of the accused, after an interview with an NIS agent, said, "They intimidate you very much. . . . I should have kept my mouth shut. They gave me the impression that they were only interested in people who were dealing drugs, not just somebody who may have used it. They said, 'Just be honest, go ahead and talk to me.' "
Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Massey, a Navy lawyer defending some of those implicated, said "NIS is still calling people in. The word is out not to say anything to these people. They'll call people in and when they the suspects say they don't want to make a statement, they the NIS agents will say, 'Come on, we've got the goods on you.' "
Cmdr. Quinn defends the NIS. "They're very cautious," he said.
Lawton and two others named by Patterson denied ever buying drugs from him or using drugs with him. "I knew this guy was dealing," Lawton told a reporter. "It was plain. He was very, very open about it. He didn't care. He was out for the money."
Patterson is pleading not guilty to the charges, which are use, possession and trafficking of cocaine and marijuana, according to his lawyer, James Kolb. As for the accusation that Patterson was a known drug dealer, Kolb said, "An admission that he sold drugs would be contrary to his plea of not guilty."
Lawton said, "Prior to coming into the service, I had gotten high." But he said he had not used drugs since he joined the service May 15, 1981, and he said his urinalysis last March showed no trace of drugs. He was not permitted to have results of that test considered at his hearing, he said.
Even if he had committed the offense, Lawton said, the punishment was unusually severe, since his dismissal from the hospital corps means it is unlikely he can ever find work in another hospital, inside or outside the Navy.
About 10 of those named by Patterson have been ordered to appear before courts-martial -- the military equivalent of a trial.
The rest of the accused have the option of choosing between a court-martial and a captain's mast, a nonjudicial, administrative procedure in which the accused stands at rigid attention before the captain to hear the charges read. The accused has no right to cross-examine witnesses and typical courtroom rules of evidence do not apply.
One Navy lawyer, and several of those who have already been disciplined, said they are warning accused persons to opt for courts-martial, which must follow military rules of evidence. They said the Navy is pressuring some people to go to captain's masts, which are quicker.
The term itself, captain's mast, comes from bygone days when a disorderly sailor was literally tied to the mast of a ship and whipped. Punishments have become less primitive, but the captain still has total authority, sitting as judge and jury, single-handedly weighing the facts and handing out the punishment.
"It's the Navy's version of kangaroo court," said lawyer Klimasky, an expert in military law. "It's summary punishment, really. There's not even the pretext of fairness."
Six of the 12 who have had captain's masts have been brought before Capt. E.R. Christian, who said he dismissed charges against two corpsmen and found four others guilty. Punishment, Christian said, ranged from a maximum penalty of suspension, demotion and loss of pay to a minimum suspended sentence for "top performers" who had high recommendations from others. Christian said he had several other cases pending.
"When a case comes up, there has to be some hard, substantiating evidence that would convict a person," Christian said. "The evidence has to be there to warrant a conviction and punishment."
A source familiar with one case before Christian said the captain dismissed the charge because "it was so blatantly obvious that the charge was a crock." He said the captain said he wasn't going to use Patterson's accusations as the basis of his decision."
Another officer had her case heard before an admiral's mast and the charges were dismissed, sources said.
Five of the remaining cases have gone before Quinn, who Lawton said "came up here from Jacksonville, Fla., with a reputation there of handing out the harshest penalties."
Massey, the Navy lawyer who has counseled about 15 of the accused corpsmen, said "The commander up there . . . wants to stamp out all druggies from the Navy. The punishments are not the most severe for that level, but they're close."
Quinn agreed that he is hard on convicted drug users. He confirmed that he has heard five cases, but would not comment on their specific dispositions.
"I feel very strongly that drugs have no place in the Navy, and especially in the medical department," he said, adding that in the cases he has heard, "we've judged each case as it comes up. Some got the maximum penalty; some got a little less."
"The penalty's always harsh if you're the guy getting the penalty," Quinn said. In Lawton's case, he said, "I wouldn't have done anything if I wasn't convinced he did it."
Quinn added that in a captain's mast, "rules of evidence are not as strict. You don't have to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt. We can always make a mistake. But that's why we have an appeals system."