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Sailors stuck on ship 13 hours for drug test

Cars towed, nights ruined for Lincoln sailors

Nov. 13, 2012 - 09:53AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 13, 2012 - 09:53AM  |  
Sailors aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln were on lockdown onboard for 13 hours while waiting for a surprise drug test.
Sailors aboard the carrier Abraham Lincoln were on lockdown onboard for 13 hours while waiting for a surprise drug test. (MC3 Antonio P. Turretto Ramos / Navy)
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Thousands of sailors found themselves confined to the carrier Abraham Lincoln due to a poorly planned drug test on the pier that spanned nearly 14 hours on a Friday this month.

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Thousands of sailors found themselves confined to the carrier Abraham Lincoln due to a poorly planned drug test on the pier that spanned nearly 14 hours on a Friday this month.

The long ordeal, according to sailors forced to endure it, led to missed anniversary dinners, child care pickups and nights out.

Typically, commandwide screenings take just a few hours to collect urine samples.

But in this case, sailors said there were too few people to administer tests for the 2,100 sailors asked to provide samples. It took so long that cars parked on the Newport News, Va., pier were towed as sailors watched from the ship's hangar bay, unable to move their cars because of the ship lockdown.

Navy officials acknowledge the test could have been handled better, though their account was less severe than those provided by sailors and officers onboard.

Not only were sailors confined, but sources told Navy Times it was under jacked-up conditions.

There was too little bottled water to drink and food to eat, according to one officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some of the provided meals were more than a year past their expiration dates.

"Thank you USS Lincoln for ruining my Friday and anniversary," one Navy wife posted on the ship's Facebook page after the Nov. 2 test. "You ruined our Friday plans, too …" another wrote.

Besides the long wait, the officer said the validity of the tests is dubious because collection protocols were repeatedly violated in the chaos.

For example, the officer said, lots of sailors collected samples without observers. Another policy states that sailors are supposed to keep samples in view, but many, due to the long wait, put the cups in their pockets.

Samples were improperly packaged and left unattended on tables, the officer said, another violation that leaves the opportunity for mixed-up or sabotaged samples.

Cmdr. Philip Rosi, a spokesman at Naval Air Force Atlantic, said he hadn't heard about any violations of urinalysis rules and could not comment on the officer's allegations. The test took so long, Rosi said, because some sailors were working at sites off the ship and had to be brought back onboard. It was important to keep everyone on the ship to guarantee the integrity of the test, he said.

The test didn't go perfectly, acknowledged Capt. Karl Thomas, the carrier's commanding officer. But he said he still believes surprise tests are an effective way to deter drug use.

"We were deliberate in the process because of the serious repercussions to sailors that test positive," he said. "Due to the unannounced nature of the testing and the rigor that we put in place, the testing took a considerable amount of time."

Problems like this shouldn't happen again, Rosi said.

"The ship's leaders learned some pretty important lessons," he said. "And they're going to incorporate those lessons to increase the efficient administration of commandwide analysis in the future."

Rosi did not have details as to how procedures might change.

While commands sometimes issue surprise drug tests after receiving a tip of illegal activity, Rosi said that wasn't the case in this instance.

The ship wasn't at full capacity because it's in a refueling and complex overhaul, and its air wing wasn't embarked. Thomas wasn't onboard and the executive officer, Capt. Timothy Keuhhas, was in charge.

The test started at 8:30 a.m. The crew was divided into six groups by last name, and nobody was permitted to leave until everyone in his group had been tested.

There were two trained urinalysis coordinators per group and about 65 observers to escort and monitor sailors as they produced urine samples.

One wife, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said her enlisted sailor expected to leave the ship at noon — the usual quitting time after working late nights earlier in the week — but got off at 10 p.m. instead. Others who had duty the night before left earlier, but they too had to stay until their entire duty section had finished. These individuals were onboard for around 36 hours.

As the crew waited, 25 cars parked on the pier were towed to an adjacent parking lot to make room for tents and bleachers for the carrier Enterprise's homecoming two days later.

"It was like watching a tornado hit your house but you are unable to do anything about it," the officer said.

As the testing went on, cellphone batteries went dry and sailors couldn't call their families, the officer said. The officer said that eventually food was brought onboard, but some meals were expired by at least a year. An E-4's wife said sailors who didn't have a Navy Cash card with them were unable to buy meals. Rosi said a portion of the mess was opened to provide food.

The last group finished testing at 9:45 p.m., Rosi said.

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