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Drinking, driving: not worth the risk.

Story by Staff Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

In the military, we're inundated with abbreviations that sound like alphabet soup to the average civilian: PCS, TDY and UCMJ. These are all immediately recognizable to those serving in uniform, and each can change your life in an instant. However, one three-letter reference is well-known to most Americans and changes the lives of everyone it touches: DUI.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, America experienced a large percentage increase in alcohol-related traffic deaths on record in 2000.

More than 17,300 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes that year - about one every half hour. These deaths constituted approximately 41 percent of the 41,945 total traffic fatalities. In 2001, 17,448 people were killed in crashes involving alcohol, also representing 41 percent of the 42,116 people killed in all traffic crashes. In Florida alone, 1,264 alcohol-related deaths occurred in 2001.

One particular airman at MacDill learned a valuable lesson before joining the military. At 19, he came home from a friend's house after drinking. He was pulled over by the state police, not for erratic driving or swerving, but because his car matched the description of another vehicle the police were seeking for a separate crime.

After determining he was not the suspect they wanted, the state police took him into custody and placed him in handcuffs for driving under the influence.

Looking back, he feels lucky. He's since heard stories about people being killed by drunken drivers. He had an entire night to think over his actions, as he sat confined in the "drunk tank" - a solitary cell with no windows and a urine-stained mattress. The next morning, as is custom in that small, rural town, he had to walk in shame through the town square for all to see. Handcuffed, he walked from the jail to the courthouse, while his friends and former classmates looked on.

The beauty of small-town life is everyone knows your name. The horror of small-town life is the same. "The judge knew my parents, the sheriff knew my parents and the district attorney knew my parents," he said. "I didn't contest it, because I knew what I did was wrong."

Tangible punishment included hefty fines, loss of his license and court-ordered driver training. The felony on his record haunts him to this day. He needed two waivers to join the military, letters from his state representative, congressman, sentencing judge and the district attorney.

He also had to have a personal interview with a chief master sergeant - a daunting experience to a potential recruit. His secret clearance, usually granted once someone graduates from basic military training, took more than two years to accomplish. His insurance is "sky high," and he can't be a volunteer for certain youth programs because of his conviction.

Now, the 23-year-old airman first class relays his experience to his friends and co-workers. He's spoken at high schools, driven friends home at 3 a.m., and used his own story to convince others the risk isn't worth it.

"It's really opened my eyes," he said. "I've stopped speeding and obey all the traffic laws now. Being in jail for only one night was really scary. It made me a lot more responsible."

This airman has aged a lifetime since joining the military. He considers himself lucky because he didn't hurt someone before it was too late.

"I really think before I do stupid stuff like that," he said. "I could have killed somebody's child or family. If you're going to be in a situation to drink, make sure you have a ride."

DUI are three simple letters that changed his life, but he's thankful he didn't have to answer the big question: What if?

 

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