By Col. George Risse
19th Mission Support Group commander
I vividly remember my mother’s sharp intake of breath as the completely dark car pulled across our headlights. It seemed like slow motion as our car slammed into the side of the emerging vehicle, the impact sending both vehicles spinning. The five children, my brothers and sisters, in our car were tossed like ragdolls. I watched in horror as the force threw my mother’s door open and she lost her grip on the steering wheel. She disappeared into the darkness of the road as the car continued to spin. We were fortunate that evening, neither car rolled over, following traffic stopped quickly and although my mother sustained a head injury and severe bruises, none of us were seriously hurt. I remember walking over to look at the other car, sitting like a grey hulk in the darkness. Even though I was 10 years old, as I looked at the man passed out in the front seat, the overwhelming smell of booze was unmistakable. We were another victim of a drunk driver.
Francis and Janet couldn’t have been happier. Their only daughter, the light of their lives, was due with their first grandchild in less than a month. As they drove home that evening, the speeding car coming over the hill in the wrong lane killed them on impact. When they pried the wreckage apart, their bodies were discovered with their arms wrapped around each other in a last loving embrace. They were two more victims of a drunk driver. That first grandchild, that they never had a chance to see, is now my wife.
Those are my personal connections to the dangers of drinking and driving. Virtually everyone has a family member, relative or close friend whose life has been changed by a drunk driver. You would think that I would be hard over on the subject, but occasionally I do have a glass of wine with dinner at a restaurant or a beer with a friend at a bar. The truth is I don’t have a cab waiting outside. I believe the most important part of the issue is personal responsibility. There is a difference between having a drink and drinking. Most people can have a drink or two and be nowhere near the legal limit for driving under the influence, but by the time you decide to have that third drink, you’re no longer having a drink, you’re drinking. That’s the point where personal responsibility is critical, and it shouldn’t take a wingman to stop you or make other plans for your transportation.
The public trusts us with their most important things: their sons and daughters, nuclear weapons and the defense of our nation. Responsibility is the most basic tenet of our profession as servicemembers. When I became thecommander of the mission support group, I had the misfortune of having three DUIs occur within my first two weeks of command. In every single case, a wingman never had a chance to intervene. These were bad personal decisions that fortunately were stopped by police rather than by an accident. It’s important to go back to the basics, just like we are throughout our Air Force, and emphasize that there are some things we don’t do. Drinking and driving needs to be one of them. You notice I didn’t say having a drink, because I simply don’t believe most people will find another way home after just having a drink. But for most people, I don’t care how much they weigh, if they’re having more than two, they’re no longer having a drink, they’re drinking and they shouldn’t drive. That needs to be part of your mindset. So I’ve asked my Airmen to set a personal line and mantra, three gets my keys. Some people may be a little lighter and need to have a stricter line, but no one should be thinking that they’re still just having a drink when they reach for that third beer. That should be the point at which they make the personal decision and if they decide to have three, then three gets my keys!