It’s easy for soldiers to score heroin in Afghanistan

Simultaneously stressed and bored, U.S. soldiers are turning to the widely available drug for a quick escape.

Topics: Afghanistan, Drugs, Iraq war,

It's easy for soldiers to score heroin in Afghanistan

Just outside the main gate to Bagram airfield, a U.S. military installation in Afghanistan, sits a series of small makeshift shops known by locals as the Bagram Bazaar. For Afghans, it is the place to buy American goods, but the stalls that make up the heart of the bazaar are also well known for what they provide American soldiers stationed at Bagram. Walking through the bazaar it takes less than 10 minutes for a vendor in his early 20s to step out and ask, “You want whiskey?” “No, heroin,” I tell him. He ushers me into his store with a smile.

The shop is small, 9 feet wide by 14 feet deep, and dark. The walls at the front are lined with dusty cans of soda, padlocks and miscellaneous beauty supplies. As we enter, a teenager is visible at the back, seated in a chair next to a collection of American military knives and flashlights. The shopkeeper speaks to him in Dari. The teen stands and heads for the door, where he stops and asks my Afghan driver a question. My driver translates, “He wants to know how much you want? Twenty, 30, 50 dollars’ worth?” From past experience, for I have arranged this same transaction a dozen times in a dozen different Bagram Bazaar shops, I know that the $30 bag will contain enough pure to bring hundreds of dollars on the streets of any American city. Afghanistan, after all, is the source of 90 percent of the world’s heroin. I say 30 and the teen jogs off.

The true extent of the heroin problem among American soldiers now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is unknown. At Bagram, according to a written statement provided by a spokesperson for the base, Army Maj. Chris Belcher, the “Military Police receive few reports of alcohol or drug issues.” The military has statistics on how many troops failed drug tests, but the best information on long-term addiction comes from the U.S. Veterans Administration. The VA is the world’s largest provider of substance abuse services, caring for more than 350,000 veterans per year, of whom about 30,000 are being treated for opiate addiction. Only preliminary information for Iraq and Afghanistan is available, however, and veterans of those conflicts are not yet showing up in the stats. According to the VA’s annual “Yellowbook” report on substance abuse, during Fiscal Year 2006, fewer than 9,000 veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) sought treatment for substance abuse of all kinds at the VA; the report did not specify how many were treated for opiate abuse.

Experts think it could be a decade before the true scope of heroin use in Iraq and Afghanistan is known. Dr. Jodie Trafton, a healthcare specialist with the VA’s Center for Health Care Evaluation in Palo Alto, Calif., says it takes five or 10 years after a conflict for veterans to enter the system in significant numbers. The VA has recently seen a surge in cases from the first U.S. war in Iraq. “We’re just starting to get a lot of Gulf War veterans,” she explains. For the first few years after a conflict, it’s hard to gauge the number of soldiers who’ve developed a substance problem. Young soldiers especially, says Dr. Trafton, tend not to seek treatment unless pushed by family members. Left to their own devices, “usually people don’t show up for treatment till much later.”

The anecdotal information, however, suggests there may be a wave of new patients coming, and it will include many heroin users. I’m a filmmaker, and I have been to Afghanistan several times to research a film about a soldier who died there under murky circumstances. Before his death, the soldier, John Torres, had told friends and family of widespread heroin use at Bagram. Based on my own experience, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the Bush administration has spent on opium poppy eradication, Torres was right. I asked to buy heroin a dozen times during two trips a year apart and never heard the word “no”; I also saw ample evidence that soldiers were trading sensitive military equipment, like computer drives and bulletproof vests, for drugs. Other soldiers who have served at Bagram agree: Heroin, they say “is everywhere.” And although they haven’t shown up in the statistics yet, reports from methadone clinics suggest the VA’s future patients may already be back in the States in force. Much like the caskets that return to the Dover Air Force base in the dead of night, America’s new addicts are returning undetected.

Back in the States, it is not difficult to find a soldier who has returned from Afghanistan with an addiction. Nearly every veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom I have spoken with was familiar with heroin’s availability on base, and most knew at least one soldier who used while deployed. In June, I spent a week in Southern California talking to veterans who had used while in Afghanistan. Getting one of them to talk to me on the record, however, was tougher.

When I ask soldiers and veterans to go public about their experiences, they are wary. “No, I’m still in the reserves,” said one. “I don’t want you to write about me,” said another. “I’m still in.” Some soldiers from Bagram I’ve spoken with in the past several years I can no longer find. Maybe they’re in jail, maybe on the street. Others may have redeployed. “I heard their unit was getting sent back to Afghanistan,” I’m told, “so maybe they’re over there.”

The soldiers keep quiet because they’re concerned about their fellow soldiers. As a veteran of Afghanistan told me, “These are my brothers. I wouldn’t want to say anything that would bring disrespect down on them.”

But they also don’t want to get in trouble with the military for talking to the media. They believe that tarnishing the military’s image would bring far more consequences than actually getting caught for using.

“They don’t do anything to you [for using],” a reservist tells me. “Two from my unit were sent home after they got caught more than once.” What happened to them? “Nothing. They’re still in the unit. Just got sent home.” Are they still using? “Don’t know. I never asked.”

According to Maj. Belcher, soldiers are “subject to drug-testing procedures and if they test positive for illegal substances, they are dealt with appropriately by their chain of command under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” But in a military stretched thin, with reservists a significant portion of the forces being deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of such disciplinary measures has little bite. As long as soldiers themselves refuse to speak out there is no reason for action.

I made arrangements to speak with three young men about their heroin problems. All were veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and outpatients of the methadone clinic at the West Los Angeles VA hospital. They had all become addicted during their deployments.

When the time came to meet, however, one of the men had disappeared. The other two said their VA counselors had told them not to do the interviews. Realizing there are stages of recovery, and there might be a clinical reason for the enforced silence, I contacted the methadone clinic directly. I was referred to a social worker, who said she would be happy to speak with me after clearing it with her superiors. She referred me to the hospital’s press person for permission.

The hospital’s press person referred me to VA headquarters in Washington. The Washington office told me a VA representative would have to sit in on any interviews — and I would also need to get approval for the interviews from the physician who supervises the clinic, the doctor who supervises the counselors who had scotched the interviews in the first place. I gave up on getting on-the-record interviews.

The VA also declined, through a spokesperson, to provide any national estimate of the level of heroin use among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. What numbers are available from the military, meanwhile, do not point to a significant problem. A spokesperson for the Pentagon referred Salon to the individual service branches for data on heroin use by military personnel. Air Force Capt. Tom Wenz emphasized that the number of Air Force personnel serving in Afghanistan is quite small, and said there had been no reports of positive drug tests for heroin among Air Force personnel in either Afghanistan or Iraq. Maj. Cheryl Phillips of the Army, which accounts for the bulk of the Afghanistan and Iraq forces, said that in 2006 not one of the Army soldiers in either theater tested positive for heroin, and that all positive drug-test results are in line with historic norms. “The Army randomly tests soldiers for use of illicit/unauthorized drugs on a regular basis and, on average, has maintained a 98 percent ‘clean’ rate … over the past 20 years, including the periods of OEF and OIF.” The Navy’s level of positive drug tests for all personnel worldwide was less than 1 percent as of 2005. A representative of the Marine Corps did not respond by deadline to an e-mailed request for information on levels of heroin use, if any, by Marines.

My own experience among young veterans in Southern California, however, suggests that drug tests do not tell the story. New Directions, situated on the grounds of the West Los Angeles VA hospital, is an organization offering programs for homeless veterans. It has a 24-bed detox unit. In the past year, according to outreach director Anthony Belcher (no relation to Maj. Belcher), New Directions has seen approximately 15 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, six of them “needing a methadone detox.”

The methadone clinic in the West Los Angeles VA hospital itself has seen significantly more. An individual familiar with the methadone program at the hospital says they are “lined up 50 or 60 deep each morning.” While the source does not know the service record of the patients, the source says, “These are young guys.” The VA has 250 substance abuse centers nationwide.

Belcher of New Directions expects the caseload to pick up later, echoing Jodie Trafton’s words about a delay between addiction and treatment. The Afghanistan and Iraq veterans Belcher’s group has been seeing have been discharged about two years on average. “That’s how long it takes for them to be forced into a detox unit by family, or law enforcement, or circumstances.”

Greg Spencer, a representative of the nonprofit National Veterans Foundation, calls the phenomenon “lag time.” “We won’t know the enormity of this problem for some time,” he says, because “there is a period between the beginning stages and the so-called bottom out, where one seeks treatment. We are just starting, in the past two years or so, to see OEF/OIF vets coming to treatment facilities for heroin addiction.”

Both Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are coming home with substance problems. But the reasons behind their addictions are frequently different.

Because the deployment to Iraq is so much larger than the deployment to Afghanistan, with more than five times as many troops in country at any given time, the VA is likely to be treating more Iraq veterans than Afghanistan veterans for substance abuse. Anecdotally, addiction among veterans returning from Iraq seems largely linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. Overall, more than a third of the VA’s 350,000 substance abuse patients from every era also suffer from PTSD. For soldiers suffering from PTSD, the use of heroin and other illicit drugs is frequently a form of self-medication, and a way to keep their stress and trauma at bay.

Many of the addicts returning from Afghanistan, however, point to sheer boredom as the reason for their use. “I had to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but half the time there was nothing to do,” one reservist who served at Bagram complained. Another expressed frustration at the number of contractors sharing their positions. “It really pissed us off that we were there doing the same job as KBR guys who were making three or four times as much. It sucked.” Bored and disillusioned with the process and mission at hand, many soldiers turn to heroin to pass the time and escape the monotony. While heroin is available in Iraq, it is that much easier to obtain in Afghanistan, a source country.

But both conflicts have something in common with a prior war — Vietnam. Whereas the first Gulf War involved a long deployment by troops inside the austere, puritanical nation of Saudi Arabia, followed by a short war and a relatively rapid return home, both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are protracted occupations of countries where heroin has long been available. Afghanistan is a source country, à la the nations of Southeast Asia. As Mark Benjamin reported in Salon last December, combat in Iraq also shares certain features with combat in Vietnam — constant patrols punctuated by ambushes, a deteriorating sense of mission — that are likely to produce high levels of PTSD.

About 2.4 million Americans had served in Vietnam before the U.S. pulled out in 1973. In 1971, while the war was coming to a close, the media reported that the level of heroin addiction was 10 to 15 percent of lower ranking enlisted men. Contemporary researchers concurred, putting the figure at 14 percent.

Those figures were later revised sharply downward, with true addiction now thought to be closer to 4.5 percent. Researchers still believe, however, that 20 percent of all soldiers who served in Vietnam used opiates at least once. More than half of the veterans now being treated for substance abuse by the VA served during the Vietnam era, but the percentage of opiate addicts who served during the Vietnam era was unavailable.

The number of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan recently passed 1.5 million early this year. No expert has yet ventured an estimate of what percentage will come home addicted to heroin. For now, Anthony Belcher is going with his gut. “You can make analogies to Vietnam … Afghanistan and Iraq, especially Iraq, seem to be another Vietnam.”

At the Bagram Bazaar, as I stood waiting for the teen courier to return with my order, I compared shopping for junk in Afghanistan in 2007 to shopping for junk in 2006. In May of 2006, I had toured the shops for the first time with Juan Torres and Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, who served as guide and translator. Juan Torres’ son, Spc. John Torres, was found dead of a gunshot wound while serving at Bagram in July of 2004. At the time Spc. Torres’ family, and some members of his unit, believed he may have been killed for speaking out about heroin use on base. John’s death turned out to be attributable to another cause, which became the subject of the film I am now completing, but his accusations about the ready availability of heroin, and similar claims by other Bagram soldiers, had prompted me to investigate how heroin was making its way to U.S. soldiers.

When I visited the shops that line the main road to the Bagram base back in 2006, they didn’t look like much. The bazaar was a jumble of small, improvised, windowless structures of mud brick, corrugated tin and wood. Once inside the shops, however, a startling array of American goods came into view, many of them military issue — bulletproof vests, hydration packs, helmets, knives, CD and DVD players, video game controllers and more. They were all goods that had either been traded by U.S. soldiers for contraband, or stolen by Afghans working on base and then sold to the shops. The goods the soldiers most wanted to receive in return — heroin, liquor and Viagra — were all available and on hand. It was easy and quick to get a shopkeeper to produce a $30 baggie of pure heroin.

A year later, the more startling American goods are out of site, and, though I still never get no for an answer, the heroin is no longer kept in the shop. In 2007, I have to wait for the heroin to be brought to the store from off-site.

The shopkeeper apologizes for the delay in the courier’s return, lights a cigarette, and tells me to call ahead next time. He offers me his cell number. “I can have it ready then, no wait. But now you have to wait 10, 20 minutes. OK?”

I ask why he doesn’t have any heroin ready to sell, that last year shops had heroin on hand. He apologizes again, and says the district governor has cracked down. “They are sweeping the shops now, because of the Cheney bomb.”

The “Cheney bomb” is how locals refer to the suicide bomber who struck near Bagram’s main gate during the vice president’s visit in February of 2007. Following the blast the military either better enforced existing procedures, or implemented new regulations pertaining to the search of locals coming on and off base. In his written statement to me, Maj. Belcher said that in the first four months of 2007 such procedures had stopped roughly “20 attempts to bring illegal drugs through the gate at Bagram airfield, all committed by either local national or third country national truck drivers.” The random sweeps currently being carried out against merchants are believed to be an attempt by the local governor to placate the American military following the blast. But sweeps and intimidation are nothing new, and “don’t last long,” a shopkeeper says. “Last year they threatened to close us after the computer problem.”

In April of 2006 a foreign journalist bought a flash drive containing classified documents from the bazaar, documents that according to published reports contained “base defense information” and “names of allegedly corrupt Afghan officials” among other sensitive information. It was not known whether the flash drive had found its way to the bazaar via sale, theft or barter, but it was not the only piece of sensitive computer equipment available for purchase. The military’s embarrassed response to the scandal was to attempt to buy back any flash drives and discs found in the shops.

The publicity surrounding the disc disclosures caused embarrassment to base leadership and resulted in threats against the bazaar. “The Americans wanted to bulldoze our shops,” a vendor said. “But local leaders warned there would be violence. So they backed down.” The result was a temporary increase in scrutiny. The Cheney bomb has created a similar, but more severe crackdown.

Now shopkeepers have moved big ticket items off-site for safety. Bulletproof vests, DVD players, military gear and other items stolen or traded for on base have been relocated to protect against confiscation. Heroin, hard liquor and Viagra, meanwhile, have been moved to locations within a 10- to 15-minute radius of the bazaar.

While waiting for the teen to return I browse the items on display and ask if business on base is still good. Until now the vendor has been speaking with me directly in broken English, but the question prompts him to switch to Dari and engage my driver in a heated discussion. After a few moments, Hakimi says, “He is worried you are an American from base to get him in trouble, but I told him no, you just want to know about the heroin.” “No trouble. Just wondering,” I tell him. He seems unsure, and scans the area in front of his shop. What he sees, or doesn’t see, sets him at ease.

“So how are you getting drugs on if they are checking?” I ask. He picks up a matchbox, opens it and points inside. “Put drugs, or with tobacco, then over.” He then tosses me the box. He sees I am confused. He speaks to my driver. My driver translates: “He says they put money or drugs in the matchbox, or with cigarettes, and pass it over the fence, so they don’t have to carry it in the gate, that or they pass it to soldiers while they are off the base.” I ask what part of the fence. “Different places. It’s big,” the shopkeeper responds. And he is right. The base is large and portions of the fence are remote from activity. Despite bans on photographing or filming near the base, in 2006 I filmed for nearly two hours along stretches of the fence line without being confronted.

Because the base is surrounded in part by small farms and villages, it is common to see locals and children walking or working in the fields near the fence. Young boys are hired to work as runners. They linger in the fields near the fence and make contact with soldiers, who pass them money and instructions. The boys then run and fill the orders at a location nearby, returning to the spot and delivering the drugs, usually within 20 to 30 minutes.

An Afghan translator who works at Bagram confirmed that much of what is currently making its way on base is arriving this way. “It is hard to get things through the gate right now, so the fence is good,” he said. “At the back, by the construction areas, there are some spots, but lots of places work.” I ask him if he has been asked to bring drugs on base. “Yes, they ask me for heroin or liquor, sometimes hashish. But I say no. I make too much to get caught. It is the workers who don’t make much money who do it. It is a better thing for them.”

Children have long been used to pass contraband. During his 2006 trip, Juan Torres was granted a tour of the base, and allowed to see where his late son, John, had worked and lived. During his visit I stayed in the staging area between the two gates that serve as the main entrance. The first gate is manned by Afghans, the second, some 200 to 300 yards away, is manned by U.S. soldiers. Before the Cheney bomb a number of vendors were allowed to operate in the space between the two gates, and serve the needs of truck drivers and workers waiting to enter. The area was similar to the bazaar, with small makeshift shops and food vendors.

The day of Juan’s visit the staging area was crowded. Dozens of trucks were lined up waiting to enter the base, and truck drivers and Afghan workers were milling about. Children were ubiquitous. Dozens of young children ranging in age from 7 to 14 were wandering the area freely, helping vendors, and talking and playing with the U.S. military personnel manning the second gate. The ease with which they moved through the area, and the familiarity they were shown by the U.S. soldiers, illustrated their usefulness to dealers. A vendor had told me the children are beyond suspicion, so they pass contraband unnoticed. More than one child asked, “You need something? Give me money and I will get it.”

Though there is no threat of arrest for a local caught smuggling contraband into Bagram, the consequence of being stopped is still high. In his statement, Maj. Belcher confirmed that individuals who are intercepted with contraband are “investigated and banned from entering Bagram again.” As dealers point out, since there are countless ways to get drugs to soldiers, risking a local’s access to base by trying to send a courier through the gates is unnecessary. But many also believe the added scrutiny at the gates is a temporary inconvenience. “They won’t check hard forever,” a shopkeeper tells me. Like others, he believes the base will eventually ease up, and goods will once again flow through the gates.

Ten minutes and the teen has not returned. A crowd has begun to gather outside the shop. A group of children are standing at the entrance, waiting to steer me toward their family shops. Two old men, curious or waiting for a handout, stand behind them, watching and listening patiently. The shopkeeper tells them to leave, which they fail to do. He then becomes agitated once again. He speaks to my driver who translates: “He doesn’t want any trouble.” I buy a few items to thank him for his time and prepare to leave. He apologizes and tells us to come back in a little while and he’ll have the heroin ready, with no crowd.

As we step outside, the kids and old men vie for our attention as we walk toward the entrance to the base. The bazaar has changed, but it has also stayed the same. The method of distribution has fluctuated, service is slower, but the flow of contraband has gone unchecked. Across the road I see the teen making his way back to the shop.

The Nation Institute Investigative Fund provided research support for this article.

Shaun McCanna is a documentary filmmaker. His current film, "Drugs and Death at Bagram," tells the story of Army SPC John Torres. The film was selected for the Sundance Independent Producers Conference and is slated for release this winter.

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