Harsh Treatment for Marines Caught Using Illicit Drugs

Editor's Note from Brian Ross: In the third year of a joint project with the nonprofit Carnegie Corporation, six leading graduate school journalism students were again selected to spend the summer working with the ABC News investigative unit.

This year's project involved an examination of whether, as happened in the wake of the Vietnam War, Iraqi war veterans were turning to drugs as a result of the trauma and pain of war.

The U.S. military maintains the percentage of soldiers abusing drugs is extremely small and has not increased as a result of Iraq.

The students' assignment was to get the unofficial side of the story from soldiers, young men of their own generation.

Today's report is the fifth in a series of five reports.


Click Here for All of the Stories in This Series.


U.S. Marines caught using illegal drugs often face harsh punishment from the military, according to counselors, veterans' advocates and military defense attorneys. Marines have been kicked out of the service with loss of benefits, or even thrown in jail despite their claim that they turned to drugs to cope with their battlefield experiences in Iraq.

While the Marine Corps does provide substance abuse and counseling, experts say rehabilitation often loses out to punishment and discipline.

"Use drugs? You're gone. There is not any great interest in rehabilitating; there's not any great interest in tending to these people," said attorney David Brahms, a former Marine general who has many Marines clients. "It is a waste of resources; it is a waste of energy. Why tend to people who we want to, and are going to, throw out?"

Tough Treatment from an Elite Corps

When he decided he wanted to help serve his country, Lance Cpl. Matt McLauchlin chose to enter the Marine Corps, an elite branch of the military renowned for its strong tradition of commitment and discipline.

"My grandfather, he was a Marine, so I figured…to join the best," said McLauchlin, was was deployed to Iraq out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

McLauchlin was injured in Iraq when insurgents shot a rocket into the middle of his base. The blast killed one Marine, injured several others and almost killed McLauchlin, who had a severed artery in his shoulder and shrapnel in his spine.

McLauchlin spent months in the hospital, where doctors administered morphine and Demerol to treat his constant pain. During his hospital stay, McLauchlin said his marriage fell apart and he went into a dark depression. Partially disabled by his war wounds, McLauchlin said he began drinking heavily when he left the hospital and one night decided to smoke marijuana.

McLauchlin said he confessed his drug use to the Marines but was shocked at the harsh response from his regimental commander, who called the Purple Heart recipient a traitor.

"I was really angry that he said that," said McLauchlin. "I made a decision, and it was wrong, but I'm not a traitor. I will fight for this country, still, to this day."

McLauchlin was kicked out of the Marine Corps with a general discharge under honorable conditions. While he can still get some benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, he lost his G.I. bill benefits, which he was counting on to go to college.

"I'm injured, and I can't really go out and make a living like a normal person can," said McLauchlin with a chuckle.

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"We fought for an honorable discharge, and he didn't get it," said Melissa Epstein, McLauchlin's military defense counsel, now a civilian attorney. Epstein, a former Marine Corps captain, said she saw many Marines like McLauchlin who turned to drugs to cope with the wartime experiences. "I have a lot of clients that have no previous bad record or were…good solid Marines who came back from their first, or second, or third deployment and went into a downward spiral."

Questions Raised About Quality of Treatment

John Veneziano, head of the substance abuse counseling center at Camp Pendleton, however, said he has seen no increase in the numbers of Marines using drugs since the start of the war in Iraq. Veneziano maintained that those Marines that do have a drug problem can receive high-quality counseling and treatment at his center.

"The goal is to return individuals back to society as well, and if not better, than the way they came to us," said Veneziano.

Advocates, however, point to the case of Cody Miranda as an example of how troubled Marines can fall through the cracks. Miranda was thrown in the brig for drug use despite his suffering psychological trauma from the war in Iraq, say sources close to the case. Miranda, a 16-year veteran and member of the Corps' elite Force Reconnaissance unit, had an impeccable military record, but his associates say the stress of combat sent him on a downward spiral that included illicit drug use.

After leaving Camp Pendleton on an unauthorized absence and testing positive for cocaine, Miranda was repeatedly jailed without initial treatment despite his diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to federal investigator Carolyn Martin.

Alone in an eight-foot-by-eight-foot cell, dressed only in his underwear and unable to sleep, Martin said Miranda was left highly medicated but denied counseling until his therapist was ultimately able to fight her way in.

Martin said what happened to Miranda is an example of a failing system.

"We are trained not to leave any military member behind, and yet we are," she said.

David Roman, a former drug counselor at the 29 Palms base in California, is highly critical of substance abuse counseling in the Marines Corps. Roman said there were only two drugs counselors available to serve a base of 10,000 Marines, and that they were overwhelmed with drug cases when troops started returning from Iraq.

"We should have prepared for that when the war broke out…we should have put counseling in high gear," said Roman. "And we've only got 10,000. Can you imagine what Camp Pendleton's going through? They got over 50,000."

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Roman said he quit his job in disgust in 2006 and now works as a substance abuse counselor at an Indian reservation near 29 Palms.

"I left 29 Palms because those Marines were not being taken care of," said Roman. "You know, we're talking about a lot of human lives here. And if they plan on sugarcoating it, then they better bring a lot of sugar, 'cause this thing is going to get real bad as time goes on."

Change in Marine Policy?

Capt. William Nash, Combat/Operational Stress Control Coordinator for the Marine Corps, acknowledges that there is a shortage of resources to adequately screen troubled Marines. According to Nash, "Currently, there is no Marine Corps policy regarding screening for mental health problems when Marines commit misconduct."

However, Nash said, in a proposed new order, Marines who have engaged in uncharacteristic misconduct would receive mandatory mental health screenings to determine if they suffer from combat stress.

David Roman, the former drug instructor and counselor, says the military needs to do even more for those who served the country in a time of war.

"They've gotten shot at. They have shot at others. They've defended us. They've supported our freedom here. And for them to receive what I've seen, the kind of treatment that was going on at the time, no, they don't deserve that," he said.

Watch Brian Ross' exclusive investigation, "Coming Home: Soldiers and Drugs," Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET