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Alcohol Awareness Month - Understanding alcohol's impact

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Since 1987, April has been designated Alcohol Awareness Month in the United States. The purpose of this designation is to raise awareness of how we use alcohol and its effects. Though the observance has obviously been around for 23 years, I sometimes wonder if we as Airmen fully understand the impact alcohol abuse can have upon us and others.

If we are to be responsible as Airmen for our own life and safety, and the lives and safety of our Wingmen, it's critical that we increase our awareness, as well as the awareness of others on how alcohol abuse may impact people's lives.

Alcohol is a drug that can affect one's judgment, physical coordination and long-term health. Because I'm not a physician, toxicologist or substance abuse counselor, I'm not qualified to comment on the physiological effects of alcohol use or potential treatment for those who may struggle with alcoholism. But, as a judge advocate general, with both prosecution and defense experience, I can assure you I have too often seen alcohol abuse impact the lives of Airmen and others negatively from a legal and life perspective.

Certain alcohol related offenses should be obvious to all and unfortunately occur all too frequently. For example, it's illegal for Airmen under the age of 21 to consume alcohol. Too often in technical training school or upon arrival at one's first duty location, an Airman consumes alcohol, gets caught and then must face his or her commander for disciplinary action. Receiving nonjudicial punishment action under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which may bring loss of rank or pay, as well as extra duty and restriction to base, is certainly not a way to start one's career in the Air Force.

Another and more serious example of alcohol's potential impact is driving under the influence. Throughout my years as a JAG, I've reviewed too many cases where Airmen, NCOs and officers have irresponsibly gotten behind the wheel of a vehicle after a night of drinking. The legal consequences have varied with each case, with some being tried in a civilian court or facing a military court-martial, while others were punished under Article 15, or received administrative demotions under Air Force Instruction 36-2502 and some were administratively separated.

But the legal and life impact of driving while intoxicated can be far more serious than a "mere" court conviction, Article 15 punishment, administrative demotion or separation. For example, in May 2008, former-Tech. Sgt. Richard Burr, was sentenced to 14 - 20 years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary following his drunk driving incident. He was also discharged from the Air Force as a result of his misconduct. A court conviction, lengthy confinement and discharge from the Air Force are all obvious and significant legal consequences.

However, the real impact of this alcohol abuse incident is measured in the number of lives impacted.

You see, when Sergeant Burr chose to drink and drive, he ended up taking the lives of two innocent young men. At the time of the incident, Sergeant Burr was assigned to the 55th Operational Support Squadron as an air traffic controller and was scheduled to leave for this next assignment the next day. After an evening of drinking, he got behind the wheel of a car, sped down 90th Street in Omaha at speeds up to 55 mph in a 35 mph zone and ran a red light. He then struck another vehicle, killing the driver and passenger and seriously injuring another passenger. He registered a blood alcohol level of .158, nearly twice the legal limit. Following the accident, Sergeant Burr pled guilty in Douglas County Court to two counts of motor vehicle homicide.

Two young men lost their lives, leaving behind grief-stricken families; Sergeant Burr lost his liberty for years and his career, forever changing his life and that of his family. The Air Force family lost an NCO. The impact of alcohol abuse can truly be devastating.

It's time all of us as Airmen fully understand the potential impact of alcohol abuse. Take time this month to increase your awareness and the awareness of others ... one or more lives may depend on it.