When my first shirt asked me to step into our commander’s office, part of me was hoping my leadership didn’t know what had happened the night before. The other part of me wanted to kick myself for having something to hide in the first place. But I knew I couldn’t do anything but wait and see what would happen.
Normally, getting called in the same room with my commander and first sergeant wouldn’t phase me. I was fortunate to have two leaders who frequently provided feedback on my actions, praised me for my good performance and asked for my opinion on issues affecting our unit.
This time, the door was shut and I was asked to sit down. The two were my role models and my guides, and they were the type of leaders that people talked about as exemplars of professionalism and devotion. The last thing I ever wanted was to let them down. Their hard stares were mixed with disappointment and concern. I never thought I’d get that look from them.
“We received a few complaints last night and this morning,” my commander said. “Can you explain what happened last night?”
I stayed silent a long while to think about what had really happened. The sad thing was I probably knew less than they did about my actions. I didn’t want to say that I did what I normally did when I was drinking. I didn’t want to say that it had been a particularly hard week, that I planned to drink until I felt better.
I didn’t want to say that this time I didn’t feel any better, and that I kept drinking more. I didn’t want to say that I couldn’t remember picking a fight with one of my best friends. I didn’t want to say that I got out of control and punched a window in the dorms.
I didn’t want to say that I couldn’t remember who took me back to my room, bandaged me up and put me to bed.
I didn’t want to say anything at all because any reply would reveal my own blaring regrets. I moved my damaged hand under the table to hide the bandages and took a deep breath.
“Sir, I don’t know what happened last night.”
My first shirt hid a frown and spoke up.
“I wish I could say that this was abnormal behavior from you, but I know that it’s not,” he said. “We know the past couple months have been hard and that you have a lot on your plate. But this isn’t just a personal problem anymore. This time you’ve done something incredibly stupid.”
He stopped and pointed at my hand.
“I can see it. I know what happened. Do you have any idea how many people had to take care of you last night, how many people came to me because they are worried about you?”
I looked down at the floor because a wave of guilt hit me. I was ashamed and embarrassed, and I knew my behavior had lost me the confidence of my peers and leadership.
“Look at me,” my commander said. “I know you, and you don’t need to look down on yourself. You’ve made a mistake, but you do not have to be that mistake. If you want to fix this you look me in the eye, take responsibility, learn from this and move forward.”
It’s been nearly a year since I sat in that chair behind closed doors, and I am fortunate enough to say that I was able to fix my mistake.
The hardest part was looking my commander in the eye because for most Airmen, the biggest critic you will ever have is yourself.
I understood I had to accept that my mistake did not define me, that my leadership had faith in me and that I could still have pride in myself because I was making the decision to hold myself accountable for my actions.
After making that decision, I took responsibility by getting help.
I received counseling, apologized to my friends who were affected by my actions and made a plan to prevent myself from abusing alcohol in the future.
By adhering to that plan I was able to gain perspective on my past actions and learn from them.
Although drinking by itself is not wrong, drinking irresponsibly can create dangerous situations for everyone involved.
I put my fellow Airmen, my wingmen, in horrible circumstances. I realized I should never put myself in a position that makes me incapable of taking care of myself. Personal accountability means taking ownership of our actions and living up to the standards set forth not only by the Air Force, but also the standards we set for ourselves.
Take it from me, a person who has come back from an ARI: ARIs are avoidable and the circumstances leading up to them are directly shaped by our choices.
Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up.
I moved forward by continuing to hold myself accountable, and I ask all of you to do the same. Continue taking steps in the right direction so our wing and the Air Force can be free of alcohol related incidents.
“No ARIs … no excuses … drink responsibly.”