In November 2006, Brig. Gen. JD Harris, 56th Fighter Wing commander (a colonel at the time), was attending National Defence College in New Delhi, India, accompanied by his wife, Heather, and son, John.
Meanwhile in South Carolina, their oldest son, Jerry Douglas Harris III, who went by â€œDoug,â€ was a freshman at Clemson University. He was studying mechanical engineering and was a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program.
Their family had lived in the state from 2001 to 2005, when Harris was stationed at Shaw AFB, and having gone to high school there, Doug decided he wanted to call South Carolina home.
One day in mid-November, the dining facility on campus was closed for a school break, so being a broke college student, Doug went to the store for a loaf of bread, jelly and peanut butter. Then, realizing it was his girlfriendâ€™s birthday, he went out and bought her a small gift and took her out on a picnic lunch with PB&J sandwiches.
Later that day, he and his girlfriend went bowling with a group of friends, and at about midnight Doug dropped her off at her house. About a quarter of a mile down the road on his way back to Clemson, Doug was hit in a head-on collision by a drunk driver and was killed on impact. He was 18 years old. It was Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
â€œHe was just a really nice young man and had hoped to follow in my footsteps,â€ Harris said of his son.Â â€œItâ€™s a poignant reminder for us of the consequences of drinking and driving.â€
The man behind the wheel of the other vehicle, a 37-year-old father of two, was injured but survived the accident. His blood alcohol level was .24, three times the legal limit in South Carolina. Since it was his first offense, he spent a couple of nights in jail, but that was about it.
Given the generalâ€™s personal experience, itâ€™s no surprise that DUI prevention is his top priority for the wing when it comes to taking care of Airmen.
â€œThe mission comes first, and we have to be able to get it done,â€ Harris said. â€œWhen we have an Airman who gets in trouble with an alcohol-related incident, that affects his or her ability to get the job done.â€
A DUI can have terrible consequences for an Airmanâ€™s career, he said.
â€œYou get promoted based on your potential, but if your potential is crushed because you have an alcohol-related incident on your record, that will hurt your chances of promotion,â€ the general said. â€œIf youâ€™re waiting to sew on a stripe or pin on another bar, quite often the unit commander will red line you for that promotion. Iâ€™ve seen that for both officers and enlisted.â€
DUI also affects an Airmanâ€™s personal life, Harris said. An Airman convicted of driving under the influence will lose their driving privileges on base for a year and face consequences from civil authorities off-base.
Additionally, the financial fallout can be crippling. Car insurance premiums will go through the roof, and lawyer fees can run into the thousands of dollars. A conviction may result in two years or more worth of lower pay for lost rank or a delayed promotion.
Then there is the stigma associated with DUI.
â€œEverybody else knows that you were out drinking and driving,â€ Harris said. â€œUnder most circumstances, you spent a night in jail. Your first sergeant had to come bail you out, or maybe a family member. Other people have been counting on you, and now youâ€™re counting on them, so itâ€™s not an easy thing for anybody.â€
Fortunately, there are resources to help Airmen with alternatives to drinking and driving. The base has a robust Airmen Against Drunk Driving program, which provides a free ride home if all other options have been exhausted. That service can be reached at (623) 856-AADD.
â€œItâ€™s always worth taking a taxi home,â€ Harris said. â€œThe $25 you think you donâ€™t have is nothing compared to the thousands of dollars it would cost you for a DUI.â€
Even worse, you could kill or injure yourself or someone else.
â€œI expect people to go out and have a good time, but you have to do it in moderation, because youâ€™re always an Airman,â€ Harris said. â€œMy recommendation is to just be responsible about it, and have a plan.â€
Critical Days of Summer: DUI prevention
By the numbers
- $51 billon: the annual cost of alcohol-related crashes
- 1.4 million drivers were arrested for DUI in 2009
- 10,000-plus people will die in an alcohol-impaired driving crash this year
- 80: the average number of times a person has driven drunk before getting caught
- 1 death occurs every 48 minutes due to drunk driving
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Luke Air Force Base members arenâ€™t exempt from DUIs. Since January 2011, at least 30 Airmen have been charged with a DUI.
Source: Randy Felciano, 56th Security Forces Squadron reports and analysis chief