Airman reveals DUI lessons

Senior Airman Heather Shelton
Kaiserslautern American

I don’t have a crazy story to tell about how I urinated all over myself while performing a field sobriety test, or how I struggled with the female security forces member who put me in cuffs after being apprehended for driving under the influence.

My story is about the realization and acceptance of a mistake I recently made, and the effect it’s had on me and the people around me.

The realization of what I did began to sink in during my verbal reprimand from the wing vice commander about my recent behavior.

As I stood at attention in front of him, he looked up from his desk after reading my charges and asked one simple question, “Why?”

No matter how hard I thought about it, all I could think of was the usual, “I made a bad decision … I had a lapse of judgment.”

He sat behind his seemingly larger than normal desk, in a room in which I felt so small, and said, “No. That’s not good enough. Why?”

As I looked slightly above his frightfully piercing-blue eyes, I stood there trembling, trying to muster a more acceptable answer.

No matter how hard I tried to use my gift for saying what people wanted to hear, I couldn’t form a complete thought. It was like every word in my vocabulary had instantly vanished.

At that moment, his question seemed to be the most profound thing I had ever heard. I thought, “Why? What does he mean, why? How do I answer this?”

Because I couldn’t answer his question, and was completely baffled by it, I sought help. It’s because of the help I received that I can say this: I didn’t care about anyone else – it was all about me. My need to drink, and lack of control over it, clouded the thoughts of whom I’d disappoint or possibly even hurt.

I too, was one who rolled my eyes at the ever-popular saying, “If you drink, don’t drive. If you drive, don’t drink. If you’re drunk and you need a ride, call someone.”

Personally, I couldn’t really picture my supervisor being too thrilled about rolling out of bed at 3 a.m. on a weekday to come pick me up at a bar. I could just see the look on his face, and hear the tone in his voice during the stern lecture I’d surely receive.

Flashbacks from busting curfew in high school entered my head, and out of sheer fear of reliving those torturous speeches, I thought to myself, “I’m fine. I’m a good driver. I can do this.”

Looks like I was wrong. A quick read of the police report will tell you just how wrong I was.

But, I shouldn’t have been afraid. Because right now, I’d take a good, late-night verbal assault over everything I’ve put the people who care about me through.

The apathetic looks, eyes-to-the-ground headshakes and sighs of disappointment will haunt me for the rest of my life. The past really doesn’t go anywhere ladies and gentlemen; it just floats in the background waiting to be introduced to those who bring it up.

Day after day, for the rest of my career, questions will be asked. It’s the questions I fear most. Answering the phone and hearing in response to my greeting, “Senior Airman Shelton? Wait, aren’t you a staff sergeant? Whoa … what happened?”

Sadly, questions aren’t the only things that add to the humiliation of a “hard bust.”

When people think about losing a stripe, they usually worry about losing money or having to start promotion dates all over again. But wait, there’s more. There are the little things that get overlooked until you’re forced to face them.

For me, that walk of shame has included:
-answering the phone at work.
-changing my e-mail signature block.
-getting all new uniforms so the unfaded spot the larger stripes once covered doesn’t show.
-knowing the entire KMC and Air Force Public Affairs career field will see my name has changed in the base paper and in stories on the Web. See it and simply wonder.
-bumping into old classmates or co-workers and getting puzzled looks.
-getting a new ID card and new checks printed.
-having to pay out of my own pocket to move into the dorms, while finding a place to store my extra belongings that won’t fit in the room.
-finding transportation to and from work, meetings, appointments, the commissary, all the while knowing I have a beautiful brand new car I can’t drive.
-breaking the news to my parents who are retired military and hearing they’ve shared the news with other retired military family members.
-explaining to my little sister, the little girl who used to idolize me, how I shamed myself and my unit.

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t stop here. Every day, I’m presented with a new obstacle or embarrassing moment that I never imagined I would ever have to deal with.

Yet still, I consider myself very lucky. Not only could my punishment have been a lot worse, I could have hurt or even killed someone.

Now, I have a second chance. Because of great support from friends and co-workers, and the help I’ve received, I can get through this. Not only can I get through it – I can prove to others, and myself that I am indeed a valuable member of the Air Force team.

But, I can’t do it alone. No one can.
My advice to those who read this, always have a plan and stick to it. However, if your plan fails, pick up the phone and ask for help, whatever your problem may be. Don’t stop if you can’t reach someone right away, keep dialing until someone picks up – someone always picks up.
(This article is reprinted from the April 11, 2003 Kaiserslautern American.)