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One Choice: Learning Curves on one Airman’s Road to Redemption

Tech. Sgt. Kenny Hunter, 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron structures NCO in-charge, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Nov. 6, 2017.

Tech. Sgt. Kenny Hunter, 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron structures NCO in-charge, poses for a photo at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Nov. 6, 2017. Hunter was convicted of drunken driving in 2011, which resulted in reduction in rank and an Article 15: Nonjudicial Punishment. As a result, Hunter was set back nearly $30,000 and six years of his military career. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Raughton)

Airmen walk past wrecked vehicles on their way to an all-call on Barksdale Air Force Base, Oct. 25, 2017.

Airmen walk past wrecked vehicles on their way to an all-call on Barksdale Air Force Base, Oct. 25, 2017. During the all-call, Col. Ty Neuman, 2nd Bomb Wing commander, addressed the Airmen, saying Barksdale had experienced 23 alcohol-related incidents from July 16 to Oct. 16, 2017, with 18 being drunken driving incidents. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Raughton)

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. – --

“I had a plan that night.”

Tech. Sgt. Kenny Hunter watched Louisiana State University play Alabama in college football while he enjoyed drinks at a Bossier City corner bar where his roommate worked in the winter of 2011. “I’ll stay until you get off work and you’ll drive me home,” he said to his roommate.

That was the plan until his phone rang.

“My friend called me, saying he was in trouble,” Hunter said. “One of the LSU fans, even though LSU won, went out and slashed his tires, so he was in an uproar. The first thing in my mind was to help him out.”

Hunter made a choice.

He left the bar and drove to see his friend, Thomas. Hunter didn’t feel inebriated.

“It’s a short drive.”

When Hunter arrived, Thomas was already talking to police.

“I calmed him down and tried to talk him into going home. Then another buddy came over to rile him up again,” Hunter said. “He wanted to find the person who cut his tires and get back at him.”

Another of Thomas’ peers told Hunter that he would calm him down so Hunter could leave.

Hunter turned onto I-20 toward Jewella Avenue. He was almost home, but decided to make a brief detour to get food.

One second changed his future in a small bumper-to-bumper fast food drive-thru.

“I was swapping my change out and my foot slipped off the brake. I barely bumped into the person in front of me,” he said.

Hunter and the other driver examined their vehicles but determined no damage was done. However, an approaching Shreveport police officer who saw the encounter determined otherwise.

“Y’all two pull off over there,” he said.

Hunter knew the smell of alcohol was on him and his career flashed before his eyes.

“I thought, oh shoot, I’ve been drinking and he’s moving this way. I’m done.”

Tech. Sgt. Kenny Hunter, 2nd Civil Engineer Squadron structures NCO in-charge, was handcuffed, jailed and booked with driving under the influence.

Barksdale Air Force Base was given jurisdiction over the incident. Article 111 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice provides the legal definition of drunken or reckless driving, and defines drunk or impaired as “any intoxication which is sufficient to impair the rational and full exercise of the mental or physical faculties.” Hunter lost one stripe, received an Article 15 and lost base driving privileges.

“I didn’t get extra duty, but it cost me six years of my career. I made technical sergeant back the first time I was eligible, which was three years later,” he said. “From losing the stripe to sewing it back on cost me roughly $29,600. That’s how much pay I lost, not counting the fact that I likely would have had master sergeant stripes on.”

Air Force restructuring in 2012 almost forced Hunter out of his military career. The following year, staff sergeants could no longer retire and would hit high year of tenure with 15 years of time in service.

“I definitely put extra energy into promoting back into tech because I didn’t want to throw away my whole career,” said the Alabama native. “I loved being in the Air Force and I still do. The job is awesome, I like deploying, I like the camaraderie and being a part of a team.”

For Hunter, the worst was yet to come.

“The worst part of it all, besides losing the money, losing the stripe and setting myself back, was having to get in front of all my guys and tell [them] I let them down. I gave us a bad name,” he said. “Facing my entire team – it was horrible. I think I cried. Just the feeling of embarrassment, of shame, humiliation and just knowing you let them all down when you know there are so many in there – young guys – who look up to you as a role model. It’s the same with my daughter. I had to tell her, too.”

Hunter faced additional shame when he stood at attention in service dress before the 2nd Bomb Wing commander, as well as his group commander, to explain his behavior.

Through dedication, Hunter promoted to technical sergeant a second time, which allowed him to remain in the military. Unfortunately, Hunter isn’t the only Airman who made a wrong decision with alcohol.

According to 2nd Security Forces Squadron records, there were 209 incidents of DUI/DWI involving Airmen, retirees, family members and civilian workers from Jan. 1, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2016 on Barksdale Air Force Base. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 30, 2017, there have been 38 drunken driving incidents.

The 2nd Bomb Wing safety office has recorded six deaths due to alcohol-related incidents since Dec. 1, 2014. The cost per fatality is $8.7 million for a total of $52.2 million. The cost to the Airman’s friends and family is immeasurable, Barksdale senior leaders say.

“We have an incredible mission here at Barksdale and it takes the entire team to make that mission happen,” said Col. Ty Neuman, 2nd BW commander. “When we lose an Airman to an alcohol-related incident, it not only hurts the Airman's career, but it hurts their teammates, their squadron, their group and the entire Wing. Over the past three months we have effectively lost production and training from 23 Airmen across the base. In today's environment where every squadron is short of personnel, we cannot afford to lose even one person let alone 23.”

During an all-call, Neuman said Barksdale had experienced 23 ARIs from July 16 to Oct. 16, with 12 being DUI incidents.

“These numbers should startle you like they did for me.  We are better than this and I am challenging you all to do better,” Neuman said.

Hope

Airmen who struggle with alcohol abuse don’t have to face the same fate as Hunter. The Air Force’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program, or ADAPT, is not a punitive consequence of drunken driving, but a way to give Airmen back control over their careers.

Capt. Mark Patience, Ph.D. and Barksdale’s ADAPT element chief, estimates the graduation rate at approximately 98 percent, with failures largely being due to outright dishonesty or willful disregard for program requirements. “One of the things people don’t realize is that we only metabolize about one drink every one and a half to two hours,” he said. “Most people think it is one per hour and the science doesn’t back that up.”

To reduce drunk driving incidences across the base, the volunteer group Airmen Against Drunk Driving, provide free rides every Friday and Saturday to those whose plans fall through. Airman 1st Class Bennett Hibbler, AADD secretary, says they have made 115 saves in 2017.

Kenny Hunter die or kill anyone. He wasn’t in a four-car pile-up. He didn’t intend to drink and drive. However, he does have a message.

“It is definitely not worth it. You can recover from it if something happens, but it’s a hard road to recover from,” he said. “It is simply not worth the risk. Never assume. Even if you have a few and you think you’re fine, it’s still not worth it. You may be completely coherent, but that doesn’t mean you won’t fail a Breathalyzer and put your whole career at risk. Six years of my career down the drain to the tune of more than $29,600. One rank. It takes at least three years to make it back.”

One choice. One second. One stripe. Don’t be one more.


Some names have been changed with respect to privacy.