Navy SEAL drug use "staggering," investigation finds

One of the most honored and respected segments of the U.S. military is battling an enemy within. For the first time, Navy SEALs are talking publicly about drug abuse in the ranks.

“I’m sitting in this chair because I’m not proud anymore to be in the community because of the direction that it’s going,” said one of the Navy SEALs who came forward.

Three Navy SEALs -- one active duty, two retired -- agreed to talk to us on camera if we disguised their faces and change their voices to protect them from retribution.

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Navy SEALs are one of the most elite forces, but there is a “growing” drug problem, SEALs tell CBS News.

CBS News

“People that we know of, that we hear about have tested positive for cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy,” said a SEAL. “That’s a problem.”

How prevalent is drug abuse in the SEAL teams?

“It’s growing,” said one SEAL. “The drug use, it’s growing.”

Last December, as an e-mail shows, the SEALs halted all training and ordered a safety stand-down because of the drug problem.

“I feel like I’m watching our foundation, our culture erode in front of our eyes,” said Capt. Jamie Sands, the commander of 900 SEALs based on the East Coast.

Sands had been on the job for just three months and already five SEALs had been kicked off the teams for using drugs.

“I feel betrayed,” Sands said. “How do you do that to us? How do you decide that it’s OK for you to do drugs?”

Every SEAL under his command was required to attend this meeting or else watch it online. In response to our request, the Navy released an edited version of the video. 

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Captain Jamie Sands speaks to a meeting of Navy SEALs about drug use. CBS News obtained an edited version of a video of the meeting.

CBS News

Before Sands spoke, his chief of staff rattled off what he called a “staggering” number of drug cases which he said showed that the Navy’s Special Operations had a higher incidence of drug use than the rest of the fleet. 

“It’s a population that is supposed to be elite performers, all with classifications, to where they have national security information and responsibilities,” a SEAL told CBS News. “That’s dangerous to my teammates.” 

Another one said that “if we need your ability, I don’t need to be in the back of my mind thinking that, OK, can I really trust this guy? Is he 100 percent going to cover my back?”

Adm. Timothy Szymanski, head of the Naval Special Warfare Command, agrees, telling CBS News in a statement “anything above zero represents a disturbing trend for this elite force.” 

So why do SEALs take drugs? You might think it was due to the stress of high-risk operations, but that’s not what Sands said.

“They think it was OK because they’ve seen other people do it,” Sands said in the video. “They think their teammates won’t turn them in. They think it’s kind of the cool thing to do, but they think it’s OK.”

A SEAL who blows the whistle on drug use does so at his own peril.

“You stand up for what’s right, and you get blackballed, or driven out,” one of the SEALs said.

Another agreed, saying “it’s a career killer.”

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Three Navy SEALs -- two retired, one active-duty -- spoke to CBS News about the drug use they saw in their forces.

CBS News

Like the rest of the military, SEALs are supposed to be subjected to random urinalysis. But in practice, they aren’t tested when they are away from their home base, which is much of the time because their skills are in constant demand. Three active-duty SEALs told us they had not been tested in years. Sands vowed to change that.

“We’re going to test on the road,” Sands said in the video. “We’re going to test on deployment. If you do drugs, if you decide to be that selfish individual, which I don’t think anyone’s going to do after today. I believe that. Then you will be caught.”

Sands called an all-hands meeting referencing a drug problem in Group 2. Although it sounds like he is dealing with it, a Navy SEAL told CBS News that “it has gotten to a point where he had to deal with it.” 

“I hope he’s somebody that we can rally behind and hold people accountable, but i’m not sure at this point,” the SEAL said.

As part of the safety stand-down, all SEALs were required to submit to urinalysis. One SEAL who had tested positive for cocaine last summer tested positive again, this time for prescription drugs. He is being kicked off the teams.

After speaking by phone with one of the SEALs who attended that meeting, I asked him if we could talk again, which would require using a cell phone that could not be traced. He said, “sure,”  then added, “we need help.”

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.