Nobody is Immune - A True Story

  • Published
  • By Col. Ken Stefanek
  • 39th Air Base Wing vice commander
I first met "Sticks" early in my career; he was a fighter pilot's fighter pilot. Supremely talented, "Sticks" quickly upgraded to flight lead and instructor pilot and was selected to attend and eventually teach at the Air Force's prestigious Fighter Weapons School. A regular at the O' Club on Friday nights, young wingmen flocked to "Sticks" to share a drink or three, talk tactics and regale each other with "there I was" flying stories. As expected, "Sticks" was promoted through the ranks and selected for squadron command. In short, "Sticks" epitomized the phrase "work hard - play harder."

Unfortunately, "Sticks" concealed a dark secret that led to his removal from command and ultimately to his death - "Sticks" was an alcoholic. More surprisingly, "Sticks" was a functioning alcoholic who appeared totally sober even when his blood alcohol level was two or three times the legal driving limit. Shockingly, when told he had a meeting the following morning with the group commander to discuss his drinking, "Sticks" showed up legally drunk.

While the events surrounding "Sticks'" demise are tragic, what I found most difficult to understand was how a person could consume the amount of alcohol that "Sticks" consumed on a daily basis and still function as a squadron commander. Surely, I thought, people must have known that the mug "Sticks" carried around the squadron contained more than just Diet Coke. When I confronted them with this question, the replies I got saddened me...they basically said that while they suspected something wasn't right, they assumed that since "Sticks" was the commander; their suspicions couldn't be valid.

My intent here is not to highlight the evils of alcohol - even though "Sticks'" excessive drinking did cause the liver disease that killed him. The lesson here is that substance abuse does not discriminate based on rank, position, ethnicity, sex, background or anything else. More importantly, if you suspect someone has a substance abuse problem, choosing to ignore it is equivalent to letting someone you know to be drunk get behind the wheel of a car.

I'll never know if earlier intervention would have saved "Sticks" from his alcoholism. I hope you never have to ask yourself that question with regard to someone you suspect has a substance abuse problem.