Airman shares family tragedy as "wake up call"

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristi N. Koch
  • 96th Medical Group
December is National Impaired Driving Prevention Month.  For me, this month hits extra close to home and is a constant reminder of the events that took place over a year ago that changed mine, my family's, and two other family's lives forever.  I've kept this tragedy almost entirely to myself, until now. About 98 percent of my patients, and even most of my co-workers have had no idea what I've been through this past year. 

This is the story of my brother and the two lives he unintentionally took.  The impact of the tragic events resonates through my daily activities as an Airman in the Air Force.

After joining the Air Force in 2005, I found out I would be trained as a mental health technician.  I didn't know then how important my job would be in my personal life.

In September 2014, I went to San Antonio to take my national certification to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.  While there, I was informed my grandmother was sick and I needed to return home to Illinois. 

After arriving, I met with my family and planned to visit my grandmother in the hospital.  Before the visit, my younger brother, Eddie, said "I'm not going to drink today."  I looked at him confused and said "Yeah, that would probably be a good idea."

I knew my brother had a problem with alcohol, but I had no idea the extent of his addiction.  He had been without alcohol for almost 24 hours when we went to visit my grandmother and was showing clear signs of withdrawal.  He was sweating, nauseous and shaking badly. 

That's when I realized his drinking was a major problem.  He was dependent.  His body physically needed alcohol to function.  I told him I was worried about his drinking, but he assured me he was "fine", which I knew was not the case. It is unethical to treat people you know or treat family members.  I knew he had a problem and I told him I was concerned, but after that there's not much else I felt I could do.  

While still in Illinois, my brother and I went out to play darts at a local tavern.  I had two drinks and was done, but my brother continued to drink.  I told him, "I think you should leave the car here and walk home with me."  We got into a huge fight at the bar.  His fiancé was with us and assured me she would get him home safely.  I walked home that night without him.

Later that night, I found out he had driven home.  I was very disappointed and upset with him.  I said to him "You are going to kill someone or yourself."  We had a long talk that night and I again voiced my concerns about his drinking.  That night, Eddie promised me he would get treatment after he returned from his business trip to Nebraska he had to leave for on Sunday. 

That Sunday, September 21, 2014, was when all of our lives would change forever.  That night, my family and I were greeted at our door by a police officer.  We were told my brother had been involved in a car accident.  They couldn't tell us if he was alive, all they knew was two other people were involved, and they were sending in a trauma team.  We immediately drove to Nebraska.  While driving to the hospital, the details began to unfold.

During the drive, we found out the accident was my brother's fault and the other two individuals involved didn't make it.  My brother had been drinking and driving.  His blood alcohol level was .144, well over the legal limit.  I cried all the way to the hospital.  Although my brother had several injuries, he was arrested at the hospital and taken to jail later that same day.

I couldn't help but feel guilty and sometimes I still do.  Even though I know I can't go back and change anything and it is not my fault, I still feel like I should have done something more.  If I would have tried harder to get him into treatment that none of this would have happened.  We'd still have my brother and the victims' families would still have their loved ones. 

The next week was a blur.  We were in court hearings and driving back and forth from Illinois to Nebraska.  We bailed out my brother so he could be home while awaiting the trial.

September 21, 2015 was the hardest day of my life.  My brother was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and received a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of 20, per count, serving consecutively.  He'll be eligible for parole in 15 years.  He was 26-years-old at the time of the accident.  He had his whole life ahead of him.

As did the victims.  The victims were a couple engaged to be married.  He was a 24-year-old Soldier and she was a 22-year-old student.  The families of those lost will never be able to fill the holes in their hearts.  I can't even imagine their pain.

As the NCO-in-charge of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Clinic, I rarely share this story.  I think most of my patients see me and assume I don't know what they are going through or how they are feeling.  For the most part that is true, I have not struggled with an alcohol addiction, but I have unfortunately seen first-hand the extreme of what that addiction can cause.  I have seen first-hand the pain and heartache.

I don't want people to feel sorry for me.  I've realized that nothing good comes from not sharing.  No one learns from my brother's mistakes and the two lives lost go in vain.  I don't want what happened to go in vain.  I need this story to touch as many lives as possible.  I never want another person or family to have to live with this pain and heartache. 

Don't ever drink and drive; even if you only had one drink.  It doesn't matter if you are not over the legal limit, if alcohol is involved in an accident you can still be charged with vehicular manslaughter.  It's not worth someone's life.

In life, every action you take or choice you make has a ripple effect.  I don't care if you "don't feel drunk" or if you've "driven drunker."  My brother didn't "feel drunk" either.  He also never intended to go out and kill those two people, but he did.  His actions caused a never-ending ripple.

I hope this story will make people think twice before drinking and driving.  I hope people will get help if they need it, and I hope this will be someone else's wakeup call.