1st Sgt. recalls how Airman’s choices led to death

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Robin W. Young
  • 99th Civil Engineer Squadron
It was a beautiful day and it seemed like a great idea to start the long weekend with a family breakfast at a restaurant. As my family and I waited on our order, like many mornings before, my phone rang. When I answered the call I recognized the familiar beep of a recorded line. I knew then it was the command post and work was calling - "Just another day on the job," I thought. The young sergeant identified himself and informed me that a member of my squadron had been involved in a serious automobile accident. As the waitress delivered our food I motioned for my wife and daughter to go ahead, I knew I was going to be awhile.

A call to the hospital confirmed that the young man in question had been involved in an accident at 7:11 a.m. He arrived at the hospital at 7:41 a.m. and had been pronounced dead at 7:46 a.m.

Everything seemed to go into slow motion. My mind began to race. How did it happen? Does he have family in the area? Had he been drinking? Regardless of the answers to these questions ... a member of my unit was dead.

I contacted my commander and my command chief to inform them of the situation; then I contacted the on-scene coroner to get more details. She asked me to come on-scene to pick up some of the members personal effects.

About a block from the accident scene the police had the road blocked. There were cones running diagonally across the road ending at the curb where an assortment of bright orange paint markings began. The coroner was waiting for me. She said she would have the police walk me through the scene, but first she needed me to identify the member.

She said that although the body had serious head trauma she was able to identify the body as being the same person as the photo on the military ID card. What she needed me to do was verify that the picture was indeed the young senior airman in my unit. As she handed me his ID I knew I didn't need to dwell on my answer, this was the young man I had not only known but spoken to only the day before.

As the police officer began to tell me of the events leading up to the accident, it became apparent that the young Airman had made some bad choices. I was told he had been involved in a minor accident only a block or two from this location and the preliminary investigation showed that he had fled the scene. Eyewitnesses said he had passed their location doing about 100 miles-an-hour and failed to stop at a four-way.

The first police cones began marking the sideways skid of his vehicle about 500 yards beyond that four-way stop. After hitting the curb, his vehicle struck a fire hydrant and later a brick wall some four feet or more above ground level. There were bright orange circles on the wall and ground indicating impact points. The member, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown from the vehicle and also struck the wall. Those two impact points were also marked with orange circles; one labeled "V impact" and another labeled "body scrap." The Airman had come to rest some 30 or more feet from the initial impact with the wall at the base of a small tree.

His vehicle had stopped another 40 or so yards further down the street on its roof, indicated by a large orange circle and marked "upside down." I was unable to identify what type of car it had once been.

As I returned to the coroner's vehicle to collect the Airman's personal effects, a crew dressed in bio suits arrived and began to collect the human remains. I watched as the crew bagged bio-hazardous materials and bleach washed the wall and road surrounding the scene. A tragedy had occurred here today, a good man had made some poor choices which cost him his life.

I arrived at my commander's office just as he and the member's flight commander arrived. We began to pool information to make the necessary notifications. Although the member was unmarried, someone had to notify his mother back home - and his friends, co-workers and roommates here in the local area.

We decided to recall his entire flight and break the tragic news in a supportive environment. With the assistance of the chaplain and a life skills counselor, the commander informed the Airman's co-workers. After an hour of consoling each other, we all ended up sitting around telling wonderful stories of how he had enriched all our lives.

As we began to piece together the last hours of this young man's life we found that he had been at a poker game at a co-workers house until about 2 a.m. By all accounts he had had "a couple of beers" over several hours but was not intoxicated. After leaving his co-workers home he and his roommate had gone to a local tavern. They had stayed together there until about 5 a.m. when his roommate called a taxi and went home. I later contacted the taxi company and a taxi from that tavern to his house was less than $10. Had he chose to go home with his roommate, this could have been avoided - all for less than $5 each.

Instead, the young Airman stayed at the tavern with some other friends until about 7 a.m. at which time he and a friend left. After giving his friend a ride home he had started home himself but somewhere along the way he bumped another car. It was reported as a minor accident and it all could have ended there, but this young Airman made his final poor decision. He chose to flee the scene, not knowing that decision would end his life and impact many others.

Looking back at this accident it had all "Big 3" causes - Speed, Alcohol and Seatbelts. But I think the true cause of this tragic event was simply poor choices. We all make choices everyday without truly understanding the possible impact these decisions can have on us and those around us. It was his initial bad decision to get into his car after drinking that lead to a series of poor choices that ultimately ended his life.

This was not "just another day on the job," this was an event I never want to experience again. I never want to have to identify a body, walk a crash scene, inform a co-worker their friend is gone or plan a memorial, but I don't get to make those choices ... you do.