In June 1971 President Richard Nixon declared war on drug addicts and traffickers. One tactic of the war—Operation Gold Flow—decreed that troops leaving Vietnam and returning permanently to the United States would be subject to urinalysis. Anyone who tested positive for drugs would be detoxified before begin allowed to go home.
At that time, LTC William Campbell commanded the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh, one of two units that out-processed returnees to the United States. They also assigned in-coming replacements to units. In The Vietnam War: An Untold Story of Drugs (CreateSpace, 216 pp. $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), Campbell tells a year-long story about his role in carrying out the requirements of Gold Flow during his second tour in Vietnam.
With merely four-days’ notice, Campbell and the commanders of the engineer, medical, and military police battalions practically rebuilt and re-manned parts of Bien Hoa and Long Binh to satisfy Gold Flow’s requirements. Bill Campbell’s account of performing this feat provides an excellent lesson in leadership. His stories about drug testing, detoxification, and disgruntled troops are informative and entertaining.
Day and night, the 90th overflowed with men in transit—awaiting either test results, a trip to detox, or a flight homeward. Detox required a seven-day departure delay. Concurrent with the push for Vietnamization, the out-processing of American troops accelerated in 1971-72. It reached a level of loading twelve airplanes a day—a total of thirty-six hundred people. Eventually, the drug-testing program expanded to include those going on R&R or leave, as well as in-coming personnel from the States.
“The pace of the withdrawal was insane,” Campbell says.
The job was further complicated by unannounced visits from generals, each with his own idiosyncratic demands. War correspondents arrived next and then members of Congress. After the release of The Pentagon Papers, interest in Gold Flow waned, Campbell says, but generals continued to visit and order misdirected tasks.
“To us, it seemed as if the actual shooting war had taken a back seat to the Army’s war against drugs,” he says.
Campbell had limited access to drug user statistics, which hovered between six and seven percent, he estimates. The majority were junior enlisted men, with a scattering of NCOs and young officers. Percentages among black and white users were equal, he writes.
The 90th’s workload ended as abruptly as it had begun. Campbell inventoried the facilities—he called it “counting the buildings”–and was the last man to leave.
The book ends happily as Campbell learns of his promotion to full colonel.
Campbell wrote An Untold Story of Drugs in 1985 but shelved it until this year. His book presents a start-to-finish view of a phase of the war that—as the book’s title forewarned—was new to me.