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Driving under the influence

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- I have been an F-16 crew chief for 16 years. In early December 2010, I was a master sergeant awaiting the results from my second attempt at promoting to senior master sergeant.

Everything was going well in my career, and I felt good about my chances of making my next stripe. I was where I wanted to be, and I was moving into the final portion of my career. There was no doubt in my mind, I was going to be eligible to retire at 20 years as a senior master sergeant or perhaps even a chief master sergeant.

All of that changed Dec. 17, 2010.

I was running swing shift that Friday evening and had finished up early. It was 6:30 p.m., and most of my work was done. I was waiting for a couple shops to send out their emails and for workers to turn in their tools. As people finished up and were released, some stayed behind to have a beer and talk. I decided to hang out for a bit and have a beer with some of my coworkers while everyone else went home for the weekend.

My general rule of thumb was to drink only one or two alcoholic beverages and wait a while if I was going to drive. That night, I ended up hanging out for about three and a half hours and drinking two pints of beer. With what I knew at the time, it seemed to me that drinking that amount of alcohol over that time period was responsible behavior, so I had no worries about driving home.

Around 11:30 p.m., I locked up the hangar, cleaned up the break room and started to drive home. As I turned the corner toward the main gate, I noticed the gate guards were stopping cars. When a security forces Airman approached my car, he told me this was a sobriety checkpoint. Another Airman informed me that they were performing breathalyzer tests and needed me to exit the car. I had never seen a checkpoint like this before, but it did not worry me because I only had two beers in three hours; I figured there was no way I was going to have any problems.

As it turned out, I registered a .083 on the portable breathalyzer at the checkpoint and later registered a .096 and .099 on the calibrated breathalyzer at the police station. About an hour had passed between finishing my last beer and using the breathalyzers, so I was confused as to why my blood-alcohol content level went up on the later readings. I could not figure out how that happened but, at that moment, I knew my life was going to change.

Later on, I reviewed the facts and I came to two conclusions.

The first was I freely chose to drink alcohol, I drove my car and I was over the legal blood alcohol concentration limit - I was solely responsible for this situation.

The second conclusion took more time to reach. After all, I was nowhere near the 0-0-1-3 guideline of one drink per hour and three drinks per night (the zeros represent zero underage drinking and zero driving under the influence). But then I realized that the guideline assumes you are drinking a 12-ounce beer with five percent alcohol, which is the Air Force's definition of a drink.

My two 16-ounce pints of five and one-half percent beer equated to 2.93 drinks. That increase explained my high BAC level a little bit, but I had three drinks in three hours, so why was I over the legal limit? I thought again about the day I had on Friday, and I remembered that I had not eaten anything since lunch, and my hydration level was probably low. Because of those additional factors, it made sense that my BAC level was higher than I had anticipated.

From this information, I was able to develop my second conclusion: the 0-0-1-3 guideline does work; I just applied it incorrectly. I had not educated myself on the rules. I had assumed that one drink per hour meant that the drink would wear off in an hour. I had not taken into account the amount of time it takes the body to absorb the alcohol, which must occur before the body can start to burn it off. I know now that two hours per drink more appropriately matches the amount of time it takes for the BAC reading to return to a lower level. That Friday night, I had waited just long enough to maximize my BAC reading at the police station.

To anyone who consumes alcohol, please reflect on the possibility that you may not be practicing the safe behavior you think you are. Take a close look at your own perceptions and behavior. The rules relating to alcohol have changed over the years, but some of our habits and traditions have not.

If you have bills to pay, a family that depends on you or time invested in your career, double-check what you think you know about alcohol. I did not feel like I was gambling that Friday night, but, in reality, I did not take the time to consider all the factors I should have before I decided to drink. By taking a few minutes to update your alcohol awareness, you may save yourself from ending up in a situation like mine.