Major given six months, dismissed in drug case
Stars and Stripes March 30, 2008
VICENZA, Italy — The former rear detachment commander of the 14th Movement Control Battalion was sentenced Friday to six months in prison and dismissed from the Army in a general court-martial at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza.
Maj. Carlos Lopez-Vega pleaded guilty to smoking marijuana, purchasing about 45 grams of the drug along with 6.8 grams of hashish and 132 grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and possession of a hashish pipe. He was arrested Dec. 9 by German authorities when he entered the country after a daylong trip to Amsterdam that he admitted was geared toward buying illegal drugs.
“I went to Amsterdam to self-medicate myself,” he said during questioning by the military judge, Col. R. Peter Masterton. “I knew it was wrong. I knew it was illegal. I’m embarrassed by what I did and it’s out of character.”
Masterton sentenced him to a year in prison, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and dismissal from the military. A pretrial agreement cut his sentence in half. He had faced a maximum sentence of nine years in prison with the charges.
The judge followed the recommendation of the military prosecutor, Capt. Larry Babin, in reaching his sentence.
“Just because you’re an officer, you’re not going to get a bye,” Babin said during closing arguments during the sentencing phase. “We need to let soldiers know we take it very seriously when they go to Amsterdam.”
Defense counsel, Lt. Col. Carl Steinbeck cited a series of personal tragedies that Lopez suffered that led up to that day.
“He did it out of desperation,” Steinbeck said. “Mentally, emotionally, he was a broken man.”
According to testimony, Lopez had been in counseling and taking medication for depression since returning from Afghanistan in early 2007. He and his second wife split while he was deployed. His father and brother had died in his native Puerto Rico just before the deployment. One of his soldiers died during the deployment — during the attack on Bagram Air Base when Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting.
Lopez’s first wife left him about a decade earlier while he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Lopez had been in Germany for a holiday function put on by his headquarters at the 21st Theater Support Command. When it ended, instead of returning to Italy, he drove his rental car to Amsterdam — where using and possessing small quantities of some drugs is legal — with an unnamed civilian.
While there, Lopez went to five or six coffee shops, buying the maximum five grams of marijuana each time. He also made three purchases of hashish at as many locations and three bags of “magic mushrooms” at three more. He also purchased a hash pipe that he used to smoke some of the marijuana.
Six people — including two officers based in the States and another in Kuwait — testified on his behalf as character witnesses.
According to testimony, Lopez’s arrest sent a ripple through not only the unit in Vicenza, but elements deployed downrange and its headquarters in Germany. The battalion’s executive officer had to be recalled from the deployment to head the rear detachment because no other field-grade officers could be found.