CAMP JOSEPH T. ROBINSON, North Little Rock, Ark. - "Bingo, there's a tall patch of it right there," says Trooper "L" over the intercom. He's pointing out the open door of the helicopter at a large group of light green plants barely discernable from the surrounding thick vegetation.
An Arkansas Army National Guard pilot, call sign "Snake," smartly rolls the OH-58 Kiowa to the left and quickly spots the familiar cannabis sativa leaves below the orbiting bird. "Oh yea, that's a nice patch; and get a load of the green water bucket," he says over the din of the swirling rotors.
It's the first sighting of the day for an Arkansas State Police-led marijuana eradication mission, in association with the Arkansas National Guard's Counterdrug Program. By the end of the day, four good sized plots of cultivated marijuana plants are found and removed from areas of St. Francis County in east Arkansas. According to a State Trooper on the ground, each plant is worth between $1,000 and $2,000 in street value. This one day's haul adds up to about $30,000 worth of illicit drugs removed from the street.
The counterdrug program, and specifically the seasonal marijuana eradication effort, is a unique aspect of the National Guard's mission and, according to the National Guard Bureau, a part of the national drug control strategy. According to NGB, the program was started with a presidential authorization in 1989, and provides funds from the Department of Defense on a yearly basis to governors, who submit plans specifying the usage of each state's National Guard to support drug interdiction and counterdrug efforts.
According to Col. Joe Moore, the Arkansas National Guard counterdrug coordinator, the Arkansas State Police are the lead agency in any interdiction or eradication efforts. "They request support from us because we bring three unique qualities to the counterdrug fight: trained citizen Soldiers and Airmen with military skills and equipment; legal status as a state militia; and our strong ties to the local communities affected by the persistence of these illicit drugs," explains Moore.
"The National Guard Counterdrug Program provides funding for all military personnel and equipment," says Moore, "and the State Police provide funding for their personnel and operations. In addition to the National Guard, the Arkansas Game and Fish, Civil Air Patrol, DEA and local law enforcement agencies join the effort, all under the coordination of the Arkansas State Police."
The marijuana growing season in Arkansas extends from July through October, according to Staff Sgt. Clay Hughes, the counterdrug operations noncommissioned officer. On a recent hot week, the 20 plus member team works with state troopers, Game and Fish officers and a Civil Air Patrol aircraft to look for "grass" in east Arkansas.
Operating out of a small municipal airport near Interstate 40, all of the participants gather for an early morning briefing prior to the beginning of a day's eradication mission. State troopers in blue mingle easily with men in Game and Fish gray, and uniformed Soldiers, Airmen and Army pilots. A Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172 sits nearby on the small tarmac. Three Kiowa helicopters from the Arkansas Army National Guard's Recon Air Interdiction Detachment sit just off of the pavement while maintenance personnel ready them for flight.
Everyone is divided into three teams that include a military and civilian ground crew headed by a State Police trooper, and an air observation team consisting of a National Guard pilot and a State Police trooper. For security purposes the State Police and the pilots are identified only by their last name initial or call sign.
At the end of the briefing the teams quickly disperse and the helicopters are powered up. Each team is assigned a section of the county and sent on their way. Once in the air, the observation teams begin to look in areas favored by growers, areas that feature a ready source of water, good concealment and discrete access.
Just before lunch Trooper L and Snake make their first find of the day, a single plant rising above a clump of Kudzu. They mark the location and, with disappointment, begin making their way back to the command post to get something to eat. But, along the way back to the airport, Trooper L spies something in a field of ragweed.
"Bring it around, I'm pretty sure I saw some plants and a yellow object near the tree line," he says. "Yup, there you go -- two separate plots right down there, and what appears to be a yellow bucket." Near where he was pointing, a small swath of green, brighter and taller than the surrounding plants, stands out. As Snake orbits the area to mark the location for the ground crew they spot another grouping of plants, and a green bucket, some 100 to 150 meters east of the first find.
"Wow, this guy's been busy," says Snake. "Those are some nice looking plants." He then radios the position to his ground crew and heads back to the airport for lunch.
After a quick bite to eat, the aircraft and ground crews head out to get a closer look at their finds. As the Snake team nears the first found plot, the "Biscuit" team reports another, larger, find in a nearby area.
On the ground, Trooper H leads a team through thick underbrush and over tough terrain to the first plot. Army Sgt. Mathew McMullen, Army Sgt. Joshua Strickland and Air Guard Master Sgt. Laura Marshall-Gish make up the National Guard contingent, and follow the State Policeman's lead.
According to Hughes, the State Police on the scene determine what actions are taken with the plot -- whether to eradicate, set up observation or take evidence. In this case, Trooper H decides to eradicate the small plots and move on. At the nearby, larger, find, Trooper M decides to remove the plants and leave a note. He finds a bamboo shoot and crams it into the hard soil. Using a machete, he cuts a sliver into the shoot and slips one of his business cards into the slot. On the back of the card he has written "If you want your pot back call the number on the front of this card."
According to Hughes, the teams have found an average of just over 100 plots per week since the beginning of the 2008 eradication season. "These are well tended, watered, fertilized and cultivated plants," he says. "We expect that count to go way up when we start working in the north and northwest part of the state. So far, we've removed about $400,000 worth of pot from the streets of Arkansas." Hughes has been working in the Arkansas National Guard Counterdrug Program for eight years, interrupted a deployment to Iraq in 2004 -2005.
The Arkansas National Guard/Arkansas State Police eradication program discovered over 70 fields, and eradicated over 25,000 plants in 2007, said Moore. According to the NGB, over four million plants were seized nationwide in 2007.
Trooper L, a Senior Corporal with the Arkansas State Police, has over 11 years of full time experience looking for marijuana, and is set to soon retire. "I've been doing this for a long time and I've learned to look for the telltale signs, including color, texture and location," he says. "I don't know that I'll miss it, but I've enjoyed taking a lot of it off of the streets over the years."
At the end of a long and hot day, one state trooper has suffered a minor heat injury and two of the teams have returned to the command post with their haul of illegal plants. The Biscuit ground team is the last to pull in, but they're empty handed despite finding the largest plot of the day.
"You've got to see this," says Air Guard Staff Sgt. Patrick Williams as he gets out of a humvee and points to a rapidly moving speck in the sky north of the airport. The OH-58, call sign Biscuit, is casting an unusual silhouette as it approaches - there's something hanging from each side of the helicopter. As he flares for a landing, everyone realizes that he has a large bundle of 12-foot tall marijuana plants hanging out each side of the thin Kiowa.
Once the blades come to a halt, state police troopers and Guard members swarm in and carry the plants to a waiting truck where they are bagged, tagged and taken into evidence. The Biscuit team offers some friendly "smack" talk to the other teams as everyone secures the area for the night.
"It's kind of a competition," says Strickland as he watches the state police remove the haul. "We're not keeping any numbers, but we give each other a hard time over it. The pilots are the worse about competing, though."
Strickland and McMullen joined the counterdrug program following deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "Their deployments were valuable for them," says Hughes, "they learned a lot about themselves. You can tell who's been deployed, just by how they conduct themselves, and the deployments have helped with the quality of people we have in the program."