RACHEAL BOWMAN, A single mother from Aberdeen, Maryland, was finishing up her shift as a postal worker the afternoon of June 11, 2021, when she got a worrisome call from her son’s girlfriend. Her son, Matthew Disney, a 20-year-old soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, wasn’t answering his phone. Neither his girlfriend nor his mom nor his little sisters could reach him. “It was very unlike him,” Bowman says. “Matthew’s sister has been incredibly ill her whole life” with a rare intestinal disorder. “When she calls, he answers.”
Her son was the child she never had to worry about, Bowman tells Rolling Stone. As a boy, he was well-behaved and supportive of his mom, who had been through a nasty divorce and struggled financially. He was “upbeat and passionate” about baseball, football, and video games. And for as long as she could remember, he’d had it in his head to join the military. “He had the very strong belief that if you were able-bodied, you should serve your country,” Bowman says. “Whether you like your president or not. He could tell you all about other countries where it was mandatory.”
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Disney considered all the service branches, and decided on the U.S. Army. He enlisted after high school, trained as a radar operator and, in March 2020, was assigned to an airborne artillery regiment at Fort Bragg. He had done nine parachute jumps, and the last time he spoke to his mom, he was excited to do his 10th. But that Friday in June, he had the day off. “Hours were going by and he was not responding to any of us,” Bowman says. “This was extremely out of character.”
Bowman and her daughters called up some of Disney’s friends, fellow soldiers at Fort Bragg, and they alerted the fire guard on duty, she says, who located surveillance footage of Disney and another radarman, Spc. Joshua Diamond, entering the barracks at 11 the night before. But when they knocked on Diamond’s locked door, no one answered. Neither the fire guard nor the military police would open Diamond’s door by force, because 24 hours hadn’t elapsed, meaning he and Disney couldn’t be considered missing persons. “Even though there were family members saying something is wrong,” Bowman says, “they would not open the locked door.”
Bowman was frantic. She contacted a family friend in Maryland, a colonel in the Army, and he made some calls that evidently spurred the military police into action. They called Bowman and asked her permission to track her son’s phone. “And then it was crickets,” she says. “Everything went silent. The second I gave my permission to ping his phone, the MPs wouldn’t talk to us.”
The Army follows a strict procedure for notifying the next of kin of casualties, and always sends a uniformed officer to deliver the bad news in person. But around midnight, Disney’s sister received an anonymous call. Bowman was standing on the front porch. “I just heard her scream,” she says. “And I went inside, and she was on the kitchen floor with Matt’s girlfriend, screaming ‘This isn’t fucking funny. Who the fuck are you? What kind of sick joke is this?’”
The caller would only tell them that Disney was “no longer alive.” Bowman placed phone call after desperate phone call and, at two in the morning, got through to her son’s battalion commander. He confirmed that Disney had been found in Diamond’s room, lifeless. “I’m so sorry,” she remembers him saying. “He was a good kid.” But he wouldn’t tell her what had happened, only that Disney “didn’t do anything to hurt himself.”
On top of the shock and grief of learning that her only son was dead, Bowman was confused. If it wasn’t suicide, then what had happened to Matthew? All she could think was that the other soldier, Diamond, must have done something to harm him.
That was not the case. In fact, Diamond was dead, too. His body had been found slumped over Disney’s on the floor, almost as if in an embrace. And many Fort Bragg soldiers have died recently under similar circumstances — quietly, in their barracks, in their bunks, in a parked car, or somewhere off-post, from no outwardly apparent cause. According to a set of casualty reports obtained by Rolling Stone through the Freedom of Information Act, at least 14 — and as many as 30 — Fort Bragg soldiers have died in this way since the start of 2020. Yet there has been no acknowledgment from the Army or reporting in the national press on any aspect of this phenomenon, nor word one from any member of Congress. Only the families of the victims have been informed — discreetly, and in private.
Disney’s memorial service was in July. “We were getting ready to go into the chapel,” Bowman says, and Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, came into the room and personally informed her that the results of a toxicology report were in. The cause of death was acute fentanyl intoxication.
Donahue, who has since been promoted to lieutenant general, did not respond to a request for comment sent to Fort Bragg. But Rolling Stone obtained Disney’s Defense Department Form 1300, a “report of casualty,” which essentially functions as a military death certificate. It confirms that he died accidentally from an overdose of fentanyl.
That only compounded Bowman’s confusion. “My son was not a drug user,” she insists. Under no circumstances would he have wittingly ingested fentanyl. Addiction ran in the fa mily, and Disney’s little sister had endured dozens of surgeries, and periodically relied on or had to withdraw from opioids, so he was well aware of the risks they entailed. “Fentanyl, ketamine, Narcan, laudanum, Percocet, morphine,” Bowman says. “These are drugs that we talked about on a very regular basis.”
However, one conversation she never had with her kids was about counterfeit pills. Military investigators informed her that Disney had ingested an imitation Percocet, a prescription painkiller. “I had never in my life heard of a fake Percocet that looked legit from a pharmacy,” she says, “until my son took one and it killed him.”
A STAGGERING TOTAL of 109 soldiers assigned to Fort Bragg, active and reserve, lost their lives in 2020 and 2021, casualty reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show. Only four of the deaths occurred in overseas combat operations. All the rest took place stateside. Fewer than 20 were from natural causes. All the rest were preventable. This is a seemingly unprecedented wave of fatalities on a modern U.S. military installation.
Forty-one Fort Bragg soldiers took their own lives in 2020 and 2021, making suicide the leading cause of death. A spokesman for the Army, Matthew Leonard, confirmed that no other base has ever recorded a higher two-year suicide toll. There were also a shocking number of incidents of soldier-on-soldier violence. Since mid-2020, 11 Fort Bragg soldiers have been murdered or charged with murder, including one murder-suicide. Five Fort Bragg soldiers were shot to death, and one was beheaded. Rolling Stone has previously reported on the rash of violent crime at Fort Bragg and investigated several of the unsolved murders. The newly obtained documents shed light on another kind of killer stalking soldiers and go a long way toward explaining the record-setting death toll.
Fourteen of the casualty reports state explicitly that the soldier died from a drug overdose. Eleven of these identify fentanyl as the fatal agent. In five other cases, the soldier died at a young age from acute renal or liver failure, or from a heart attack — medical events that young people typically don’t experience, but that can be brought on by heavy drug abuse, complications from mixing drugs, or organ damage from the use of banned steroids. In addition, there were two cases where soldiers died from “undetermined” causes after being found unresponsive, for a total of 21 probable drug-related deaths in the two years ending December 2021. By comparison, there were about 13 illness deaths at Fort Bragg over the same period, 14 car and motorcycle crashes, and three fatal training accidents. Putting aside instances of self-harm, then, accidental overdose is the leading cause of death at Fort Bragg.
Rolling Stone obtained the casualty reports from the U.S. Army Human Resources Command, not Fort Bragg, where officials have been not at all forthcoming. A spokesman for the base — a colonel — said that the number of deaths in 2020 was 45. According to the reports, it was 56. Another spokesman, a captain, stated in writing that the 2021 death toll was 38. In fact, it was 53. The same captain also told Rolling Stone that the number of opioid overdoses last year was four. In reality, it was at least six, and probably 11, if you count all of the deaths that were likely drug related. When confronted with these facts, Fort Bragg officials deflect blame and point to trends in the general population. “We do not see this as an isolated issue that only plagues Fort Bragg,” Capt. Matt Visser wrote in an email. He pointed to the proximity of Interstate 95 — the highway from Miami to New York, a notorious drug-trafficking corridor — which “increases the accessibility of substances” to Fort Bragg soldiers.
In most cases, there is no announcement when a soldier OD’s. For instance, on Feb. 23, 2020, Spc. Christopher Jenkins, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst, died of “fentanyl and dextromethorphan intoxication,” according to his casualty report. Though it occurred on Fort Bragg, there was no press release, and no news reports of the death of this active-duty soldier, who was from West Palm Beach, Florida. No obituary was published, and Jenkins left no trace on the internet.
Other Fort Bragg soldiers who died of an overdose with no public notice in 2020 and 2021 include Spc. Christhiam Gonzalez-Pineda, a helicopter repairman originally from Honduras who died from the acute effects of unspecified “illegal substances,” per his casualty report; Pfc. Anthony Savala, an infantryman from California who died from a cocktail of Benadryl, benzodiazepines, and fentanyl; Spc. Zachary Bracken, a Green Beret candidate from Maryland who died from a combination of alcohol and fentanyl; Sgt. 1st Class Michael Tardie, an infantryman from Arizona who died from the same mixture; Sgt. David Mazzullo, a signals-intelligence analyst from New York who died from an overdose of heroin and fentanyl; and Spc. Matthew Meadows, a parachute rigger from Texas who died from fentanyl alone. None of these deaths were made public.
In other cases, for reasons that aren’t clear, Fort Bragg did make an announcement when a soldier died of an overdose, but in a vague and euphemistic way that made no mention of drugs. For example, a Special Forces candidate from Ohio named Jamie Boger was found “unresponsive in his barracks,” according to a March 16, 2020, press release; his casualty report shows that he died of cocaine and fentanyl intoxication. Likewise, on Nov. 11, 2020, Spc. Terrance Salazar, an infantryman from Texas, was found “unresponsive in his room”; he died from mixing alcohol and cough syrup. Pfc. Mikel Rubino, an infantryman from California, was “found unresponsive in his barracks room” on Aug. 13, 2021; he died from a fentanyl overdose, according to his casualty report. Six weeks later, an artillery spotter from Texas was found “unresponsive” in his off-post housing; his cause of death remains pending determination.
The artillery spotter died in the first week of October 2021, a month during which Fort Bragg soldiers were losing their lives at the incredible rate of one every three days. The local newspaper, The Fayetteville Observer, picked up on the trend of soldiers dying from unexplained causes and published an article on Oct. 30 that tied together the cases of “six soldiers found dead in barracks on post.” After that, the public-affairs office seems to have quit announcing overdose deaths altogether. The incidents of apparently healthy young men turning up “unresponsive” stopped.
“The Army was like, ‘Here, go tie ribbons on trees,’ ” says Disney’s mom. “They need to start talking about the problem. But they don’t want to acknowledge it.”
Nonetheless, another 21 Fort Bragg soldiers died over the subsequent five months — one from a confirmed overdose, and nine others from causes pending determination. The most recent soldier to turn up lifeless on Fort Bragg from causes that the Army can’t or won’t explain was Maj. Eric Ewoldsen, on March 25, 2022. Ewoldsen was not just any soldier. According to multiple sources, he was an officer on Delta Force, a top-secret manhunting unit said to be the most selective organization in the entire Department of Defense. It’s a mystery how Ewoldsen, a 38-year-old fitness fanatic, ended up slumped over in a parked vehicle somewhere on Fort Bragg, but sources close to his family say that no foul play was involved. “His death is not a result of malpractice or anything nefarious,” Ewoldsen’s former JSOC teammate Cody McBride wrote in an email.
“All these deaths are happening in the same way, and no one is talking about it,” says Racheal Bowman, Disney’s mom. “It’s all very secretive. It’s all swept under the rug.” She adds, “This is obviously a problem. How is it that nobody knows about it?”
MANY PEOPLE ASSUME that because soldiers are regularly drug-tested they can’t use illicit substances. This assumption is mistaken. The Army has long taken a more lackadaisical attitude toward drug use than some might expect. Many years ago, when I enlisted, my recruiter asked me not whether I smoked marijuana but rather, “When was the last time?” He then showed me a minifridge in his office that was full of detox drinks that he said would allow me to pass a urinalysis. Later, when my unit was about to deploy to Iraq, a sergeant in my platoon tested positive for cocaine. Nothing happened to him.
To an even greater extent than Americans in general, U.S. soldiers are overworked, stressed out, and chronically deprived of sleep. To cope with the demands of their physically and emotionally taxing jobs, they turn to a whole range of potent substances, legal and illegal, whether it’s a hyper-caffeinated energy drink to boost a predawn workout, an off-duty joint to ease a chronic injury, steroids to obtain an edge in selection for an elite unit, or a line of cocaine in the bathroom of a bar after a deployment. Hard-drug use is increasingly apparent in the Special Forces. A group of Navy SEAL whistleblowers told CBS News that the military’s drug-testing protocols are “a joke.” In many cases, there’s no institutional incentive for commanders to punish soldiers for simple possession or use. It’s an offense best dealt with quietly and administratively. But fentanyl has changed the calculus.
Fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death among American adults under the age of 45. The cheaply manufactured, perniciously addictive, superpotent nightmare drug has contaminated the whole range of illicit narcotics in the United States. People who think they’re taking cocaine, Xanax, hydrocodone, or some other relatively softer substance may end up ingesting it unknowingly. Indeed, many of these deaths should not be considered overdoses at all, but rather accidental poisonings.
“He definitely didn’t know it was fentanyl, that’s for certain,” says a close friend of Spc. Joshua Diamond, the radarman whose room Disney was found dead in. “Based off of text messages they found on his phone, he purchased a Percocet.”
Or so he thought. It’s not clear whether Diamond and Disney split one pill or took one each. Their families learned from investigators that Diamond had purchased the pill or pills from a fellow soldier in the 82nd Airborne, who got them off the dark web.
Diamond grew up in Taunton, Massachusetts, a small town south of Boston. According to the friend (who wanted to remain anonymous because he works in law enforcement), Diamond did “backbreaking jobs” in his twenties, “roadwork,” and joined the Army at the age of 34 in search of “structure in his life.” He wanted “something he could be proud of,” the friend says, “a stable career.”
The region of Massachusetts where he and Diamond grew up together is “riddled with overdose deaths,” he says, but the friend is vague about Diamond’s past use of drugs. “I don’t want to sit here and say he was a saint and a choirboy,” he says. “Anything that he was involved in, it wasn’t a lifestyle.”
The last time he saw Diamond, in May 2021, he had recently redeployed from Iraq. “His life was in good shape,” the friend says. “He was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him. He was doing great. That’s why it’s so devastating. I thought he was going to learn a craft and be proud of himself. Instead, he got put in a pine box.”
THE DIRECTOR OF the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Dr. Nora Volkow, tells Rolling Stone that the number of opioid overdose deaths in the United States has been rising relentlessly for the past two decades. At first the problem was prescription pills, then heroin. She compares the emergence of fentanyl around 2015 or 2016 to the Omicron variant of Covid-19. “It just took hold everywhere,” she says.
Fentanyl is a classic example of the reliable tendency, well-known to economists, of drug and alcohol prohibitions to produce new substances that are ever-more potent, compact, cheap to manufacture, and toxic to users. Unlike heroin, fentanyl can be synthesized in a lab with no need to grow poppy plants. It is so highly concentrated that it can be distributed efficiently through the mail. “It is more powerful, more addictive, more rewarding,” Volkow says, “and much more likely to result in an overdose.”
On average, she says, members of the military are less likely to die of an opioid overdose than the general population, in large part because of entry-level screening that excludes people with preexisting substance-use disorders. However, recent studies show a “fast and dramatic” rise in the absolute number of overdose deaths among active-duty military men, she says. “They have been going up, just like in the whole United States.” She adds that the military medical system has been “very proactive” in its response, “particularly in the distribution of Naloxone.”
In addition to casualty reports from Fort Bragg, Rolling Stone obtained the casualty reports for every U.S. soldier, Army-wide, who died in 2021. The documents show that of 505 total deaths, 33 were confirmed overdoses. That alone would make overdose a leading cause of death among American soldiers, behind suicide, illness, and accidents, but well in excess of homicides and combat fatalities. However, just like at Fort Bragg, there are a substantial number of deaths from what the Army has labeled “undetermined” causes. If deemed overdoses, these would significantly increase the total. These 27 cases “pending determination” include a soldier who was found “unresponsive” in his barracks in Vicenza, Italy; three soldiers stationed in Alaska who were found dead over the winter, two at home and one in a vehicle; another Alaska-based soldier who died down in California from what the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner determined was a fentanyl overdose; and the deaths of two Special Forces soldiers, one in El Salvador and one in Long Island, New York, from causes the Army hasn’t determined.
Whatever the true total of soldier overdoses, it’s clear that a lopsided percentage of them take place at Fort Bragg, which is distinct from most other bases in that it’s overwhelmingly populated by male soldiers in combat-arms units. It is a base full of trigger pullers, where many have done multiple deployments to Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Most recently, it was the 82nd that evacuated the Kabul airport when the U.S. withdrew. Nolkow says that while soldiers are less likely than civilians, on average, to develop a drug habit, “the psychological distress of being deployed, seeing people die, and being in a war zone” makes combat veterans “more vulnerable to drug taking and very heavy drinking as they try to auto-medicate the intense anxiety associated with PTSD.”
According to medical experts, alcohol and drug misuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders as predictors of suicidal behavior. Trauma feeds into both suicides and overdoses, which oftentimes can be hard for medical examiners to tell apart.
The surge in both at Fort Bragg coincided with the demoralizing end of the war in Afghanistan, in which the Special Forces and the 82nd Airborne played so prominent a role. That dispiriting defeat, after 20 years of hard fighting against a determined enemy, no doubt contributes to the malaise driving soldiers to drug themselves with opioids and other toxic narcotics. There are historical parallels here to the widespread use of heroin by American soldiers at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Military leaders will deny it and say that morale is high, but there is a palpable sense of purposelessness and disillusionment hanging over bases like Fort Bragg. “It’s a depressing place,” says a young soldier in the 82nd who was having breakfast at the nearby McDonald’s recently. “Everyone hates it.”
“The Army really had no interest in how he died,” says one grieving mother. “I have many unanswered questions, but nobody seems to give a shit.”
Despite the lack of reporting on this issue, Fort Bragg knows it has a problem. In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesman said that the base had taken a number of new measures recently to decrease the distribution of drugs on-post. They had stepped up police presence at the gates, increased background checks on visitors, deployed more drug-sniffing dogs, and raised the frequency of random urinalysis testing, Capt. Visser wrote. Nevertheless, drug-related crime increased a full 100 percent in fiscal year 2021, an officer in the provost marshal’s office admitted to the local ABC affiliate. According to data obtained by Rolling Stone, no fewer than 232 Fort Bragg soldiers were charged last year under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance, including an incident in which an MP was accused of moonlighting as a drug dealer, and selling Oxycodone from his cop car. And 2021 saw a continuation of a trend that Rolling Stone has previously reported on: Green Berets and other elite soldiers getting into the drug game.
Last year, I wrote about the case of Billy Lavigne, a dope-dealing Delta Force operator found murdered in the woods outside of Fort Bragg in December 2020. Two sources who knew Lavigne now say that they believe he was working with the North Carolina operation of a Mexican drug-trafficking cartel.
“That man worked for the cartel,” says a tattoo artist who saw Lavigne in November 2020, shortly before he was found shot to death in the back of his own truck. “He was transporting crystal meth. He was driving with people that were coming back from their pickup location, and collecting money if somebody was being a problem and not wanting to pay.” She adds, “I rode with him a couple of times to Atlanta, where they were doing the cooking.” In her view, “it had to have been the cartel that killed him.”
Lavigne was out of his mind on drugs and committed a string of irrational crimes from 2018 to 2020, including the murder of his best friend, a fellow Green Beret. Though the sheriff and DA’s office let him off the hook every time in an apparent favor to Delta Force, the cartel didn’t appreciate him drawing so much attention, the tattoo artist says. “It’s something called green-lighted,” she explains. “It means you’re going to be killed.”
Lavigne’s murder remains unsolved. “My speculation is he got involved with the cartels and was probably selling or moving stuff,” says James Reese, a retired Delta Force lieutenant colonel who knew Lavigne personally and worked with him in Iraq. “He probably started owing them money and couldn’t pay. Then the sandman came for Billy.”
Also unsolved is the cryptic case of Enrique Roman Martinez, the young Fort Bragg soldier from Chino, California, who was beheaded during a May 2020 camping trip with six of his comrades from the 82nd. Rolling Stone recently obtained CID’s entire 1,526-page investigative file on the suspected murder case, which makes clear that LSD played a key role in what went down. The partially redacted documents, including the campers’ handwritten statements, paint a picture of an outing to the beach that devolved into a bad psychedelic trip, then a horror movie, but never quite make clear who the culprits were that chopped off Martinez’s head.
More recently, in May 2021, a master sergeant in the 82nd named Martin Acevedo III was arrested in a joint raid by the Department of Homeland Security and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. The feds seized more than two kilos of coke, several firearms, and $99,808 in cash from his house on Green Heron Drive, and hit him with heavy-duty trafficking charges. Acevedo pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in August 2022.
Four months after Acevedo’s arrest, a Special Forces staff sergeant named David Rankine was charged with drug trafficking for importing “diverse amounts of anabolic steroids” into the United States. Rankine was also charged with cocaine use, child endangerment for allegedly snorting and injecting drugs in front of a minor, as well as sexual assault for forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint. He pleaded guilty to all but the child-endangerment charge and was sentenced to five years in prison.
To better understand the psychology of soldiers — particularly elite soldiers — who turn to drug trafficking, I wrote to Master Sgt. Daniel Gould, a Green Beret who won a Silver Star for valor in Afghanistan, only to be convicted in 2019 of conspiring to import a large quantity of cocaine into the U.S. from Colombia. “I had a great paycheck, and I didn’t need to do what I did,” Gould wrote back in a letter from federal prison, where he is serving a nine-year sentence. Money was part of what motivated him, he explained, but he mostly did it for the challenge, out of boredom, and because he’d lost touch with right and wrong due to the moral gray zone Special Forces soldiers so often inhabit: “The opportunity was there, and I took the risk.”
Gould’s scheme might have succeeded had it not been for a captain named Stephen Murga. Murga, an infantry officer assigned to the DEA station in Bogotá, got suspicious when Gould asked him to load a pair of punching bags onto a C-130 bound for Florida, and to not stop by the U.S. embassy on the way to the airfield. “I knew something was going on,” Murga tells Rolling Stone. “Knowing Dan, I wouldn’t put anything past him.” Murga tipped off the DEA, and Gould was forced to turn himself in.
Gould was an “adrenaline junkie” and a “war hero brought down by his ego,” in Murga’s estimation. “His Silver Star citation is the key to his persona. He was a Special Forces team leader. They were ambushed by the Taliban. He assaulted the ambush line, and killed, like, 14 of them.”
The adulation and praise that Gould received as a result made him feel as though he was untouchable, Murga says. He adds that it’s a “character arc” common to a lot of elite soldiers, in his experience. “I worked with a lot of SF operators over the past five years,” he says. “I don’t think he was motivated by money, but by danger and excitement. He thought he could get away with it.”
ALTHOUGH THE PRESIDENT is commander in chief, Congress has broad authority to fund, organize, manage, and regulate the military, and when necessary, to reform it. This was apparent in 2020, when the House Armed Services Committee created an independent review board to assess the leadership failures that led to 28 soldier deaths at Fort Hood, Texas, in the span of a single year. At the conclusion of that damning investigation, the Pentagon sacked nearly the entire chain of command at Fort Hood.
Twice as many soldiers died at Fort Bragg for two years running, and across the board, there were more incidents of homicide, suicide, and drug overdose. Sexual assault is also a major problem at Fort Bragg, as Rolling Stone has previously reported. Yet Congress has done absolutely nothing about it.
Fort Bragg is left to police itself, but there are serious questions about the sufficiency of the military justice system to deal with systemic drug crimes and substance abuse. When a soldier dies from an overdose or an accidental drug poisoning, it’s not always obvious who should be held responsible, or to what degree.
Friends of Disney’s told his mom the name of the soldier suspected of selling the deadly fake Percocet to Diamond. That soldier was recently convicted of seven counts of drug distribution, busted down to private, dishonorably discharged, and sentenced to a year in prison. Bowman says she can’t understand why he wasn’t charged for an offense like manslaughter. “He’s not in trouble for the deaths that he caused, because he didn’t know what he bought,” she says, incredulously. “Why are you not responsible for the risk that you just took?”
It is understandable that Bowman would want to see heavier punishment. “There’s zero accountability,” she says. “That’s why these kids are dying.”
But it’s not at all clear that greater retributive justice would do anything to alleviate the drug crisis on Fort Bragg, or in the Army more generally. Even if the military jailed dealers for life, it would do nothing to bring back Disney and Diamond, or any of the others who have succumbed to overdoses recently. Nor would increased law enforcement do much to deter other soldiers from distributing drugs on-post, in all likelihood. Get-tough measures on part of police and prosecutors have done nothing to reduce the demand for narcotics, and demand will always beget supply. The 50-year history of the failed War on Drugs has taught nothing if not that.
Perhaps there is no greater symbol of our definitive loss in that interminable war than Fort Bragg itself. From this flagship base, the beating heart of the U.S. special-operations complex, the military apparatus behind the global War on Drugs deploys to the far corners of the world. Green Berets train security forces in countries like Colombia, El Salvador, and Honduras. Delta Force reportedly took part in the anti-cartel operations that killed Pablo Escobar and captured El Chapo Guzmán. Yet drive down Bragg Boulevard into the Bonnie Doone neighborhood of Fayetteville, and in between the storage facilities, mobile-home dealerships, and tattoo parlors, you will find roach motels full of addicts, indigent veterans camped out beneath bridges, and strung-out junkies hanging around boarded-up trap houses. The dismal tide of synthetic opioids and amphetamines has penetrated Fort Bragg’s high-security gates, permeated through to the lowliest privates’ barracks, and caused at least a dozen overdose deaths in just the last year. These dead soldiers, who far outnumber combat casualties, are clearer proof of the United States’ unequivocal defeat in its longest-running international military campaign than a white flag run up over the main parade field. As the old saying goes: The War on Drugs is over — drugs won.
ON THE MORNING of Feb. 16, 2021, Andrea Bracken and her family gathered together at Arlington National Cemetery to inurn the ashes of her son Zachary. His death two months earlier had come as a complete shock to her and her husband. Spc. Zachary Bracken, a Special Forces candidate at Fort Bragg, was just 24. He had been an athlete in high school and a football player his freshman year of college, but dropped out in hopes of becoming a Green Beret. “He went into the Army with a purpose,” Andrea says. “He wanted to go into Special Forces. He wanted to be a combat medic.”
Her son’s story is not atypical. He had dabbled in drugs before, including marijuana and Ecstasy. “He tried things,” Andrea says. “Zach was very transparent.” But he never would have chosen to take fentanyl, she believes. “My son was an EMT already,” she says. “He knows what drugs are what.”
Bracken is one of three Green Beret trainees, or soldiers in the Special Warfare Training Group, to die of a drug overdose recently. (The others were Pfc. Jamie Boger, in March 2020, from cocaine and fentanyl; and Staff Sgt. Van-Michael Ellis, in October 2021, from cocaine and alcohol.) The incident occurred when Bracken was off duty, at a friend’s wedding. His blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent at the time that he died, at 10:35 a.m. on Dec. 5, 2020, according to a report obtained through the FOIA. Bracken’s system also contained 0.012 milligrams of fentanyl per liter of blood — a lethal dose.
That’s not what it says on his death certificate, though. “‘The cause of death could not be determined,’” his mother says, quoting the county medical examiner. “That’s the way she put it.” Andrea also had difficulty obtaining Bracken’s vital records from the Army. “Can I get my son’s records?” she asked them. “They said, ‘Sure.’ But they’ve had some issue.
“Although they expressed sympathy,” Andrea continues, “the Army really had no interest in how he died. I have many unanswered questions, but nobody seems to give a shit.”
It’s a bitter sentiment echoed by the family members of other overdose victims. “They won’t give me any answers,” says Diamond’s best friend, who was his legal next of kin. “They really hold their cards close to their vest. The whole thing was weird. They kept shuffling me around.”
“The Army was just like, ‘Here, go tie ribbons on trees,’” says Bowman. “They need to open their mouths and start talking about this. The Army needs to say, ‘Yes, this is a problem. We know this is a problem, and we are going to try to remedy the problem.’ But they don’t want to acknowledge it.”
It was freezing cold that February morning when the Bracken family met in Arlington. Above the uniform white tombstones, the trees were bare. Among the mourners was Zachary’s sister, then 22. “She was his best friend,” Andrea says.
The funeral ceremony had already begun. But there was one final shock in store for the family, as the military added insult to injury. There was some kind of confusion in Zachary’s burial paperwork. “As we’re waiting with many, many, many people, they come out and tell us we’re going to have to take our son’s remains home,” she recalls. “They said that there was a glitch in the information that they got, and something was overlooked. They told us that we would have to take him home with us.”
They drove back to Norfolk, Virginia, with Zachary’s ashes in the car. At this point in the story, Andrea begins to cry. “There’s no dignity in it,” she says through tears. “It’s no dignified way to die.”
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