Drug Problem in the US Navy and Naval Criminal Investigative Service

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Stereotypes of psychoactive drug use have historically been common among U.S. military service personnel, with a wealth of literature demonstrating that they extend back through centuries (Bray, 2010; Bachman et al., 1999). This has necessitated the Department of Defense (DOD) to specifically underscore drug use and abuse among military personnel as a major quandary affecting the readiness and morale levels of the military force in addition to developing and implementing programs aimed at identifying and deterring drug use and dependence within the force (Bray & Hourani, 2007). While recent statistics released by various federal agencies reveals a declining trend of drug use within the military especially after the introduction of the ‘zero tolerance’ policies in 1981 (Borack, 1998), the problem remains deep-rooted, perhaps due to its historical context and early justifications that were propagated to ostensibly rationalize the use of alcohol and other drugs by the military personnel. This internship report specifically purposes to capture the drug problem in the U.S. Navy and evaluate some of the measures that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) has put in place to fight and contain the problem.

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Historical Context & Rationale for Drug Use in the Military

The problem of drug use in the U.S. military is certainly laced with historical accounts that aimed to not only popularize the self-destructive behavior within the rank and file of the military personnel, but also to rationalize usage using mundane theories of motivation that lacked scientific backing. Bachman et al (2010) point out that “…rations of rum were deemed essential for soldiers’ morale in the American Revolutionary Army, and the picture of the hard-drinking US serviceman has persisted, at least until very recently” (p. 672). During World Wars 1 and 2, U.S. soldiers were provided with free cigarettes to maintain their morale and, according to one critic, cigarette smoking was perceived as a virtue that enabled the service personnel to look tough on the battlefront. While it is indeed true that the basic predisposition of military personnel is to appear tough, resilient and dependable (Ames & Cunrodi, 2005), science has revealed that the negative reinforcement of drug use and dependence only serves to weaken the health status and dependability of the victim.

According to Bray (2010), “…drugs have been used by soldiers to reduce pain, lessen fatigue, increase alertness, or to help them cope with boredom or panic that accompany battle” (para. 1). While the above are valid aspersions that continue to face soldiers in the battlefront, the notion that indulging in drugs is the panacea to the various difficulties that face military personnel remains largely unconvincing, and only leads to addiction as was demonstrated during the Vietnam War. Statistics contained in a recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report reveals that an estimated 20 percent of veterans who fought in the Vietnam War reported having used hard drugs such as heroin, opium, and cocaine on a weekly basis, and a further 20 percent were thought to be addicted to the drugs based on preliminary investigations on exhibited symptoms of dependence (Bray & Hourani, 2007). Borack (1998) believes that such addictions were a direct result of the historical orientations that carried drug use within the U.S. military in high esteem and justified usage based on some misconstrued perceptions.

Until recently, binge drinking in the military was largely viewed as an acknowledged custom and tradition (Bray, 2010). Indeed, alcohol was thought to be an indispensable item for subsistence and motivation and, as such, was offered on routine basis to the military personnel. According to the author, “…heavy drinking and being able to ‘hold one’s liquor’ have served as tests of suitability for the demanding masculine military role” (para. 2). A widespread stereotype revolving within the U.S. military has been to exemplify hard-fighting and victorious soldiers as hard-drinking soldiers. Not so long ago, it was common knowledge that alcoholic beverages were made available to sailors and soldiers at greatly reduced prices purposely intended to promote motivation, unit cohesion and camaraderie while curtailing interpersonal conflicts, boredom and tediousness (Bray, 2010; Polich, 1981). These backward justifications, however, only served to entrench the problem of drug use and dependence until it was realized that such tendencies were taking a toll on the health and preparedness of the service personnel.

NCIS Mandate and Background Information

NCIS is under the Department of the Navy (DON), and serves as the principal law enforcement and counter-intelligence agency in matters relating to countering, investigating and solving criminal offenses that threaten the effective functioning of the United States Navy personnel and the Marine Corps. Specifically, the agency is mandated to guarantee the operational efficiency and readiness of the U.S. naval forces with hands-on measures intended to counter, protect and lessen the major criminal, intelligence, and terrorist risks that face the naval personnel, marines and indeed the whole nation (Department of Navy, n.d.).

NCIS works in tandem with other local, state, federal and overseas agencies to thwart and investigate crimes ranging “…from terrorism and espionage to common felonies involving DON personnel which include – but not limited to – homicide, domestic violence involving child abuse, identity theft, child predators, and sexual assault and arson” (Vlahos, 2009, p. 28). The agency, through a rich diversity of skills and expertise in its 2,400-strong workforce, takes a less belligerent but exceedingly assertive methodology to fight criminal activities believed to threaten the effective functioning of the navy personnel and the Marine Corps. The workforce, comprising of civilian special agents, investigators, intelligence specialists, and forensic scientists, among others, also extend their services to the families of the service personnel, civilian members of staff employed by the DOD, and the assets of the Navy and Marine Corps worldwide (Vlahos, 2009).

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It is imperative to mention that NCIS runs an internship program designed to afford tailored educationally-related work assignments to eligible students on a volunteer or non-pay basis (Department of Navy, n.d.). Based upon their educational achievement and expertise, interns are assigned to various functional areas within the agency such as criminal investigations, cyber crimes, drug control and enforcement, general crimes, forensic sciences, fraud, human resource services, government affairs, information systems, and counter-intelligence department, among others. This particular report reflects the culmination of over two months of rigorous hands-on training made possible through the generous support of the NCIS Internship Program.

A Critical Evaluation of Drug Use and Dependence in the U.S. Navy

With an active force of over 330,000 personnel and over 102,000 in the Navy Reserve, the U.S. Navy is charged with the responsibility of maintaining, training and equipping battle-ready naval forces competent of countering aggression, winning battles, and enhancing the freedom of the seas (DON, 2009). Available literature as demonstrated by Vlahos (2009) reveals that the problem of drug use and dependence has penetrated deep into all the seven uniformed services of the United States, including the Navy. According to Borack (1998), good proportion of the active naval service personnel is engaged in foreign assignments which are sometimes long and boring, triggering an urge by some of the sailors to indulge in alcohol and drug abuse. The naval forces interaction with diverse people and frequent encounters with foreign cultures when working on international assignments have also assisted to sustain the drug problem. However, this does not imply that naval forces located in various bases and stations within the U.S. do not have a drug problem; on the contrary, reports released by the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NADAP) reveal that the problem cuts across all naval bases within and outside the U.S. (NPC, 2008).

It is imperative to conceptualize a working definition of the terms ‘drug abuse’ and ‘alcohol abuse’ to have a better understanding of the extent of drug usage in the U.S. Navy. Within the military, ‘…drug abuse is defined as the wrongful use, possession, distribution, or introduction onto a military installation of a controlled substance (e.g., marijuana, heroin, cocaine), prescription medication, over-the counter medication, or intoxicating substance other than alcohol” (Bray, 2010, para. 3). On the other hand, alcohol abuse is defined described as alcohol use that results in undesirable effects on the victim’s wellbeing or conduct, family, society, the Department of Defense, or that leads to intolerable and deplorable behavior on the part of the user. According to Bachman et al (1999), heavy alcohol consumption is “…defined as consuming 5 or more drinks in a row at least once during the preceding 2 weeks” (p. 673). It is a well known fact that substance and alcohol abuse are resolutely opposed not only within the U.S. Navy, but also within the other uniformed services due to their adverse effects on the health and well being of the service personnel and also due to their unfavorable consequences on military readiness and the preservation of acceptable principles and standards of performance and discipline that is associated with the military.

The Department of Defense is on record for describing the drug problem in the U.S. Navy as ‘epidemic’ following the 1981 tragic crash of an EA-6B prowler plane, which killed 14 sailors on board in addition to injuring 48 and causing damage to critical naval assets worth an estimated $150 million (Novak, 2009). A post-accident report of the 14 service personnel killed in the nightmarish accident revealed that 6 of flight deck crewmembers had used marijuana before embarking on the flight. It was therefore concluded that substance abuse was one of the contributing factor to the accident. According to Novak, President Ronald Reagan used the revelation to institute a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for substance use and dependence in the military.

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The drug testing programs and other policies promoting healthy lifestyle in the military have been instrumental in reversing the drug problem, and reliable statistics released by several agencies demonstrates that the number of naval personnel who have tested positive for prohibited substances has been on a steady decline for the past couple of years (Bray & Hourani, 2007). According to reliable statistics from the Naval Alcohol and Drug Management Information Tracking System (ADMITS), “…the trend for positive drug tests among sailors shows a steady decrease since 2001, when 6,279 of 934,000 samples tested positive…Last year [2008], only 2,120 samples tested positive out of 1.19 million tested” (Novak, 2009, para. 8). These statistics paint a positive outlook of the U.S. Navy as far as tackling the drug problem is concerned, but they also suggest that the battle for a drug-free Navy is far from being won.

Statistics from the Office of the National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and other studies can be used to reinforce the assertion that the level of drug usage in the U.S. Navy and indeed the entire armed forces are on a downward trend. A fact sheet prepared by the agency to summarize drug use trends in the U.S. demonstrates that over a third (36.7%) of armed forces personnel polled in a 1980 survey admitted to using a prohibited drug within the past twelve months, a figure that fell to 6.0% in 1998 (ONDCP, 2002). In his research study, Borack (1998), indicates that “…in 1980, approximately 33% of the Naval personnel indicated they had used illicit drugs during the past 30 days; this had declined to 4% in 1992” (p. 18).

Statistics released by ADMITS reveals that in 2008, the Air Force had the lowest percentage of positive drug tests, standing at the 0.25% of all the samples, while the Navy was second with just about 0.5% of the samples turning out to be positive for illicit drug use (Novak, 2009). Around 1.4% and 1.75% of the samples tested positive for the Marine Corps and the Army respectively. Although the current percentage of the military personnel testing positive for illicit drug use is exceedingly low compared to the situation in the 1980s and the 1990s, the struggle to achieve ‘zero tolerance’ towards drug use in the armed forces is far from over, implying that the problem of drug use and dependence persists.

The number of naval personnel seeking assistance for alcohol and drug abuse has been on the rise in the recent past according to the Navy records (CAAC, 2010), implying that the drug problem indeed exists. On a positive note, however, the increase in the number of personnel seeking assistance can be attributed to the aggressive campaigns carried out by the Navy leadership in collaboration with other agencies such as NCIS, NADAP, NADSAP and NIDA, among others. According to DON (2009), “…major elements underlying Navy’s approach to eliminating alcohol and drug abuse are enhanced detection, deterrence, prevention, education, intervention, and treatment when necessary” (p. 2). These approaches will be discussed elsewhere in more detail.

Types of Drugs mostly used in the U.S. Navy

By far, Marijuana continues to be used by military service personnel as the illegal drug of choice. In 2001, a survey conducted by NIDA in collaboration with other task forces revealed that an estimated 70% of military personnel caught abusing drugs within the uniformed forces used marijuana due to easy its accessibility, cost implications and the generally accepted stereotype that the illicit drug has some medicinal values (NPC, 2008). The survey also revealed that cocaine and methamphetamine also ranked second and third respectively in order of the most abused drugs in the U.S. armed forces. According to Naval Personnel Command (2008), methamphetamine use among sailors have increased dramatically in the past few years, and the agency has taken a proactive stand in terms of creating awareness and early action to stop this particular drug from destroying the budding careers of the service men. Alcohol, inhalants, oxycontin, caffeine, designer drugs, club drugs and anabolic steroids continue to be used by the naval force.

As mentioned in the instruction of this sub-section, marijuana is not only the most widely abused illicit substance in the U.S. today, but is currently the most commonly used illegal drug in the Navy (NPC, 2008). The drug is easily available in the U.S. due to the countries proximity to Mexico and Canada. The drug was once thought to be comparatively harmless, but is now widely documented as a hazardous ‘gate-way’ drug that introduces uses to other hard drugs and mood-altering chemicals. According to figures released by ADMITS and documented by NPC (2008), 52-67 % of all positive urinalysis results for sampled naval personnel between 2000 and 2004 tested positive for active ingredient in Marijuana – THC.

A survey conducted in 1980 by DOD on military personnel on major U.S. military installations worldwide disclosed that an estimated 46% of Navy personnel and Marine Corps junior enlisted frequently used marijuana during the preceding 30 days, and an estimated 26% of the users reported being under the influence of this particular drug while performing their work-related obligations (NPC, 2008). The seriousness of the Marijuana problem in the U.S. Navy was further put into focus by the nightmarish crashing of a Prowler plane on the deck of the USS Nimitz plane carrier in 1981. As explained elsewhere in this report, post accident investigations disclosed that 6 of the fourteen aircrew and naval personnel who perished in this accident had traces of their blood, demonstrating that the personnel were under the influence of Marijuana. Although this accident happened some two decades ago, it has frequently been used by analysts and scholars to not only demonstrate the fact that marijuana is widely used in the Navy, but also to show the harmful effects caused by drug and substance abuse (Borack, 1998).

The use of cocaine by the Navy service personnel has also been well documented over the years. Cocaine is an extremely addictive drug due to the frequent compulsive urges to take more once the user becomes addicted. In the Navy, cocaine is widely taken by inhaling, intravenous injection, or smoking. The drug is not only associated with high instances of brain damage, but it puts the injecting drug user at a high risk of contracting HIV/HIV if needles or other injecting paraphernalia are shared among users (NPC, 2008). Statistics based upon Drug and alcohol Abuse Reports forwarded by the naval fleets and reported to ADMITS reveal that between 2000 and 2004, cocaine use and dependence accounted for between 14% and 22% of all the urinalysis tests that turned positive for illicit drug use.

The use of oxycontin has been well-documented in the U.S. Navy. According to NPC (2008), oxycontin is an exceedingly addictive prescription drug used in the management of moderate to extreme pain that may be associated with physical injuries, bursitis, arthritis, fractures, post-operative conditions, fractures and some forms of cancer. The active ingredient in the oxycontin occasions opiate-like effects once the drug is taken. Consequently, sailors who abuse this particular drug mostly take it as a substitute for cocaine since it can elicit feelings of euphoria and anxiety, while curtailing the withdrawal symptoms associated with heroin use (NPC, 2008). The drug is mostly sold in tablet form

According to NPC (2008) projections, alcohol and club drugs are mostly used by young sailors attending all-night dance parties commonly referred to as ‘raves’ or ‘trances.’ The agency further takes cognizance of the fact that while the issue of using inhalants (glue, gasoline, paint, etc) may be minimal in the Navy, the packaging and the legality of many of the inhalants often makes it difficult to stop their use. It is widely believed that Navy service personnel use inhalants as a momentary substitute for more costly substances such as cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, or even alcohol. This assertion introduces the money and availability factors in the fight against drug use and dependence in the Navy. These and other factors will be discussed below

Factors that Reinforces Drug Use and Dependence in the Navy

There exist a variety of factors that works in tandem to entrench drug use and dependence in the Navy. First, the subjective stereotypes about the military and drugs have only served to exacerbate the problem of drug use in the Navy, especially to personnel with comparatively minimal knowledge and awareness of the harmful effects of drugs. Not so long ago, it was largely perceived that military personnel who engaged in binge drinking and cigarette smoking were ‘tough guys’ who could win any battle (Bray & Hourani, 2007). In equal measure, pictures of soldiers puffing away a cigarette abound in the popular media, making the recruits the recruits to develop a perception that smoking is cool and tough. The problem, according to Nelson & Pederson (2008) lies in the perception portrayed by the media and other stakeholders of what tough military personnel should look like or behave. However, DON and DOD, through concerted efforts engineered by several agencies such as NADAP, NIDA and NCIS, are fighting this perception through increased awareness and testing programs (Rodriguez, 2010).

Easy accessibility and cheapness of such drugs as marijuana, oxycontin, cigarettes, alcohol, club drugs, and some forms of inhalants have been blamed for thwarting efforts aimed at achieving ‘zero tolerance’ on drug use in the Navy (Nelson & Pederson, 2008). Not so long ago, military personnel used to be given free daily rations of alcohol and cigarettes in a misplaced belief that this would ostensibly maintain the morale and alertness of the force (Bray & Hourani, 2007), while to date, alcohol and cigarettes are offered at greatly discounted prices in many Navy installations and basis. Sociologists and psychologists have successfully demonstrated the complex relationships that come in play to further entrench the drug problem among the Navy drug abusers when such shallow and unproved beliefs and the greatly discounted prices in alcohol and cigarettes are allowed to take precedence (Polich, 1981). The following quote summarizes why the stereotypes and accessibility of alcohol have continued to dampen the efforts aimed at ridding the Navy of alcohol and drug use and dependence.

Traditions and rituals around alcohol consumption and life at sea have gone hand in hand for centuries, as has easy availability of alcohol starting with the daily grog ration on board ships in the 18th and 19th century right up to the contemporary times when the multiple bars in port and on deployment liberty support normative patterns of binge drinking (Moore et al., 2007, p. 2).

Consecutive studies carried out by the DOD on health related behaviors among active duty military personnel reveals that the young enlisted service personnel exhibits very heavy alcohol consumption rates when compared to civilian populations of the same age. Moore et al (2007) point out that this trend is largely contributed by the socioeconomic conditions of new entrants in the armed forces. According to the authors, “…the military draws many of its applicants from low socioeconomic status populations, with comparatively high-risk drinking patterns, and many of the underage recruits who already have extensive drinking histories bring their established drinking patterns with them” (p. 12). Consequently, alcohol and drug use continue to receive a boost from such socioeconomic conditions.

Consecutive studies have revealed that most military personnel returning from prolonged conflict zones and wars often exhibit a multiplicity of serious health challenges; including depression, sleep disturbances, nervousness, and drug and substance abuse (Ames & Cunrodi, 2005). The post traumatic stress disorders associated with combat experiences have been known to lead some military personnel into drug dependence in addition to contributing to individual wellbeing and family relationship crises. As such, battle experiences become a contributing factor to drug use and dependence.

How the NCIS is tackling the Drug Problem in the Navy

The NCIS serves as the principle law enforcement and counter-intelligence agency in matters relating to countering, investigating and solving criminal activities that may affect the effective functioning of the U.S. Navy personnel and the Marine Corps. The NCIS acts as a big brother to the navy personnel and marines, availing assistance to the individuals entrusted with protecting our seas and indeed our territorial supremacy (Vlahos, 2009). The NCIS is charged with a multiplicity of other functions and responsibilities which are outside the scope and purpose of this paper. However, this section will critically discuss five strategies used by the agency in assisting the U.S. Navy deal with the menace of drug and substance use and abuse.

Development of Methodologies & Programs for Drug Testing

NCIS is actively engaged in the development of sophisticated techniques and programs used in randomly testing the naval forces for drug use and dependence. By utilizing its state-of-the-art laboratories and qualified personnel, the agency has developed modern techniques that are capable of detecting most of the drugs used by the naval personnel, including designer drugs which are normally hard to detect (DON, n.d.). According to DON (2009), random testing for drug traces within the Navy is one of the techniques that have successfully managed to keep the drug problem at an all time low. Borack (1998) suggests that “…drug testing appears to represent an effective technique for reducing drug use in the Navy…The estimates provided …indicate that approximately 56.% of drug use is deterred by testing” (p. 24).


The DOD regulations are clear that repeated use of illicit drugs and substances may lead to automatic withdrawal and sacking of the concerned personnel from the force (Vlahos, 2009). To maintain the maximum number of qualified personnel in the Navy, NCIS in collaboration with other agencies is charged with the responsibility of identifying naval personnel at risk for alcohol and drug abuse, and providing counseling, mentoring and rehabilitation services to ensure the Navy’s peacetime and battle readiness missions are sufficiently met. By utilizing the agency’s qualified counseling personnel and residential or non-residential services, the NCIS undertakes detoxification and rehabilitation programs on naval personnel who have been identified as alcohol or drug dependent. These services are extended to close relatives of DON personnel and other entitled beneficiaries (DON, 2009).

Education and Awareness Campaigns

A wealth of literature suggests that most one of the leading factors why most military personnel engage in alcohol and drug use is lack of adequate and appropriate information (Vlahos, 2009). NCIS, through its trained personnel, resources, and facilities have come up to fill this void by engaging in extensive education and awareness campaigns targeting not only personnel presumed to be at high risk of developing drug dependence, but also other personnel who are not actively engaged in drugs. This is done in collaboration with other agencies engaged in efforts aimed at kicking the vice from the Navy. It is imperative to note that the education and awareness campaigns are extended to family members of affected victims to tap their contribution towards helping the victims out of the drugs problem. According to Vlahos (2009), NCIS has realized that information is critical in tackling the problem of drug use and abuse and the success of its education and awareness campaigns are well documented.

Documenting Statistics on Drug Use in the Navy

NCIS, in conjunction with other stakeholders have been actively engaged in documenting statistics on drug use in the Navy with the view to developing tangible policies aimed at containing the problem (Vlahos, 2009). The capacity to rely on objective data about the trends of alcohol and drug use is certainly the first step towards the development and implementation of policies aimed at reversing the trend (DON, 2009). The agency relies on its sophisticated drug testing technology and qualified staff to develop a comprehensive databank on the trends of drug use in the army to inform policy guidelines on the way forward. This has certainly contributed to the reduction of instances of drug use and dependence in the Navy.

Comprehensive Analysis on the Types of Drugs on the Market

NCIS is also engaged in undertaking scientific analysis of the types of drugs that keeps flooding the market to develop superior mechanisms aimed at countering their use in the Navy and within the country’s boundaries. The knowledge of these drugs and substances is of paramount importance in any efforts geared towards curtailing the use and dependence of drugs. NCIS is also engaged in surveillance assignments particularly about how the drugs and substances get into the market and how they penetrate the naval bases and other military installations in the country and internationally (Vlahos, 2009).


This report has demonstrated that the problem of alcohol and drug use and dependence is still there in the U.S. Navy, though not as prevalent as it used to be over three decades ago. The literature reviewed and experiences gained during the internship suggest that the problem of drug use by the Navy personnel is mostly fueled by historical misconceptions, subjective stereotypes, accessibility and cheapness of the drugs, socioeconomic status of recruits, socialization dynamics within the naval base, and battle experiences. A comprehensive review of literature has also indicated that the trend of alcohol and drug use and dependence is steadily going down, though Marijuana, cocaine and some prescription drugs remain widely used. The mandate of the NCIS has been well expounded, and its roles in containing the drug menace in the Navy are well established. Certainly, it can be safely argued that the U.S. Navy, with assistance from NCIS and other public agencies is on the right track towards achieving a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on drug use.

Reference List

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Bachman, J.G., Freedman-Doan, P., O’Malley, P.M., Johnston, L.D., & Segal, D.R. (1999). Changing patterns of drug use among US military recruits before and after enlistment. Journal of Public Health, 89(5), 672-677. Web.

Borack, J.I. (1998). An estimate of the impact of drug testing on the deterrence of drug use. Military Psychology, 10(1), 17-25.

Bray, R.M. (2010). Military, drug and alcohol abuse in the United States. Web.

Bray, R.M., & Hourani, L.L. (2007). Substance use trends among active duty military personnel: findings from the United States Department of Defense health related behaviors survey, 1980-2005. Addiction, 102(7) 1092-1101.

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Moore, R.S., Ames, G.M., & Cunradi, C.B. (2007). Physical and social availability of alcohol for young enlisted naval personnel in and around home port. Substance Abuse, Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2(17). Web.

Navy Personnel Command. (2008). Drugs of abuse. Web.

Nelson, J.P., & Pederson, L.L. (2008). Military tobacco use: A synthesis of the literature on prevalence, factors related to use and cessation interventions. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 10(5), 775-790.

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Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2002). Drug use trends. Web.

Polich, J.M. (1981). Epidemiology of alcohol abuse in the military and civilian populations. American Journal of Public Health, 71(10), 1125-1137.

Rehabilitation and referral services for alcohol and drug abusers. (1985). Department of Defense Instruction No. 1010.6. Web.

Rodriguez, K.R. (2010). Navy emphasizes zero tolerance on drug use. Web.

Vlahos, E. (2009). NCIS protects those who serve. All Hands, Issue 1109, 26-33.

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