AAA – Alcohol, Aviators and Aviation Medicine

“AAA” – Alcohol, Aviators and Aviation Medicine

Lt. Col. R.F. Holliker Jr., USAF/Ret.

 (This is an article I wrote for the USAF Flightlines quarterly magazine.)

In the early 1980’s there were two almost identical incidents (that I can remember), where I flew ‘drunk;’ with absolutely no reservations at all.  Both times were on the return legs to Randolph Field from ‘cross-countries’ to Shaw AFB, SC, in a T-38A.  On the first trip I was the ‘seeing-eye’ Instructor Pilot (IP) for our Inspector General, a 1-star, and on the second flight, I was flying with the Command Flight Surgeon (who was also a pilot).  Each time the guy I was flying with had an agenda of his own, and so did I – to ‘party’ and get drunk.  And, on both occasions I drank until 0330 – 0400, and then subsequently took off at 0900 or so.

When I say I flew drunk “with absolutely no reservations at all,” it is not from a position of ‘arrogance’ or bravado – and I am certainly not ‘proud’ of it.  It is more from the consequences of my undiagnosed and untreated disease at the time – that of alcoholism.  I am a drunk.  And today, I intend to regress a bit (mentally), to share with you a little of ‘how I think’ in my alcoholic state.  The brains of alcoholics are ‘wired’ a little different than those of ‘normal folks.’  That’s not necessarily good, nor bad; it’s just the way it is.  So all the briefings by commanders, flight safety guys and flight surgeons; the ‘appeals’ to stop drinking from friends and wives, are lost on alcoholics.  I know; I had ‘em all; and it still didn’t make a difference!  For the two flights mentioned above I was serving as an ATC T-38 Flight Safety Officer at the time.

I was what is characterized as, a ‘high-functioning’ alcoholic; until the bitter end.  I made all my promotions on time, I never had a DUI, I always showed up for work (yeah, sometimes still ‘in the bag’) and I was a flying squadron commander at the end of my USAF career.  I also completed all the Professional Military Educational courses along the way, and my Master’s degree as well.  On the personal side, I was married, with two great kids.  At the risk of ‘vanity,’ I was charismatic, innovative, creative and funny as hell – the ‘life of the party.’  ‘On the inside’ however, I was forever lonely, scared, uncertain, angry and tormented; for I knew I was a drunk!  I have known there was something ‘not quiet right’ with me since I was 8 or 9 years old.  It was as if I never fit in anywhere, until I drank.  Then I fit in everywhere!

So, knowing all this at the time, why didn’t I seek help?  Well, I did, once – near the end of my career.  Until then I was not able to because of a couple of reasons.  First, our Air Force ‘culture,’ in and of itself – as it is.  It’s just as simple as that.  In spite of all the wonderful Air Force ‘programs and policies,’ with regard to alcohol use, I just did not trust ‘the System.’  (Alcoholics seem to have a natural hatred of ‘authority figures;’ I know, I did – and do even somewhat to this day.)

Let’s begin here by looking at the ‘label’ for folks like me; the label for people struggling with alcohol given to us by the Air Force, and our society in general.  The Air Force, yesterday and today, calls us ‘alcohol abusers!’  Stop and think about it here a second; do you seriously think I am going to go to anyone and fess up, “I am an alcohol abuser?”  Gawd, the stigma associated with being an ‘abuser,’ of any kind within our society!  And, to label myself as an ‘abuser?’  No way!  While the term ‘alcohol abuse’ may carry an innocent connotation for what it is with ‘normal’ folks, for the alcoholic it’s tormenting because of everything else it brings with it: shame, stigma, fear, remorse, etc.  In my mind I never ‘abused’ alcohol; I used it for what it is designed for – to help me get drunk – and make you go away!  And, for many, many years, it very worked very well for me.  I have always felt ‘alcohol abusers’ are people who leave a ½ glass of beer on the bar when they leave; or folks who order a glass of wine with dinner, and again, drink only a portion of it – through the whole meal!  There are folks who can do that; and I don’t understand them… People who ‘abandon’ a glass of wine, or let a perfectly good ‘cold-beer’ get warm, are ‘alcohol abusers’ in my mind.   So, the very ‘labeling’ of the program, by ‘the System,’ fueled my fear for my career.  Hell, my career progression was going just ‘fine’ with my drinking; why screw it up?  I never saw but one ‘drunk’ leave for treatment, and subsequently recover his career. 

In the culture of a flying squadron, there was a certain expectation to drink, yet not to be an alcoholic.  If you aren’t afflicted with this disease that works ‘okay,’ but it didn’t for me.  A lot of my buddies drank like I did for a while, then they all ‘grew up’ and walked away from it.  I never did – I never grew up, and I wasn’t able to walk away from it.  To be labeled as an ‘alcohol abuser,’ would have been very ‘shameful’ for me within my squadron, as well as within the whole USAF community at large.  So, I disguised my alcoholic behaviors as those of ‘the go-to-hell’ fighter pilot; the fun-loving ‘life of the party,’ with no cares at all in the world!  And inside, I was dying.

The second dynamic that came into play with me, was one of ‘denial and/or disillusionment.’  For a long time I denied my alcoholism.  I didn’t want to be an alcoholic.  I liked drinking, and wasn’t quite finished with it…

My ‘disillusionment’ manifested itself in my attempts to ‘minimize’ my dinking.  I once mentioned my concern over my drinking to a dear, trusted friend; another pilot in my squadron.  He pointed out how much ‘stress’ I was under at the time.  Inspections, ‘time-line,’ promotion, career progression, what-ever.  He further mentioned that I didn’t drink any more than anyone else in the unit at the time.  There was no way he could have known of the nights I sat alone in my darkened living room; way into the night, drinking beer until I passed out, all the while listening to John Denver’s “Darcy Farrow,”…over and over again, wanting a bullet in my brain — to end all my pain.

On another occasion, when the Wing Commander announced at a luncheon that I was to be the new Squadron Commander, I asked myself, “Would a Wing Commander make an ‘alcoholic,’ a squadron commander?”  “Probably not,” I concluded; and that night I went over to the Auger Inn to celebrate my good fortune, and the fact that I was not an alcoholic – and I got drunk as hell!  That’s how my brain ‘is wired’ folks…

About 11 months from retirement I sought out my Flight Surgeon one afternoon and sat down with him under a pecan tree at his house on Randolph Field, and expressed concern again, about my drinking.  I mentioned I was drinking about a six-pack a night, then really ‘cranking it off’ on the week-ends.  (I was a ‘daily drinker’ between binges…) I went on to tell him that I just wasn’t having any fun anymore in the Air Force.  The ‘college boys’ were driving me nuts with their concerns over ‘appearances’ vs. the mission.  I saw ‘careerism’ and ‘professionalism’ replacing ‘espirit-de-corps,’ and I resented it.  The only place I found ‘relief’ was in Bud Light.  The Air Force just wasn’t what it was anymore from when I signed up; and I was miserable.  After an hour or so of talking that late august afternoon, Dr. John suggested I quit.  With less than a year to go for my ‘twenty,’ and the airlines in a hiring posture, I submitted my retirement papers a short time later.  Two years ago, as I was ‘playing the tapes’ in my mind of that august afternoon conversation, I wondered to myself if Dr. John meant ‘quit drinking.’ vs. quit the Air Force?  Dooooo!  It’s all about ‘how my brain is wired.’  It took about 10 years for me to make this connection; 10 years after I quit drinking.

Within flying squadrons, as well as everywhere else I suppose, there is a set of prevailing ‘protective’ attitudes with respect to confronting others with concern over their drinking.  Oh, you might find a couple pilots lamenting about someone else’s drinking on occasion; most often in a form of mild ridicule.  “It might ruin his/her career if I say anything,” or “He doesn’t drink any more than anyone else,” or “She ‘looked’ okay to me!”  (I often heard, “Oh, that’s just Bob; isn’t he a riot!”)  Then,  after a ‘blessed event,’ whether it be an accident or incident, one can often hear, “I always knew he/she would get into trouble someday because of drinking,” or “I have known he has had a problem since our days at the Academy.”  Well, from my perspective, if you have a ‘concern’ about someone’s drinking, and you don’t say anything, then you share in the responsibility of the ‘blessed event!’  I can tell you, with all candor; I was incapable of ‘taking care of myself’ when I was drinking!  It seems there is more ‘honor’ in attending the funeral services for a fallen (drinking) pilot, than standing up and being accountable.

Conventional wisdom has it that the alcoholic will not seek help until he/she ‘hits bottom.’  Unless things have changed considerably in the Air Force, the ‘alcoholic’ isn’t going to seek help from anyone, at any time.  It’s going to require a substantial ‘culture change’ that isn’t going to occur overnight.  The alcoholic today in the Air Force is either unable or unwilling to seek help, just as I was 20-30 years ago.  Pretty sad, isn’t it.  So, here is where you come in; here is where you ‘engage’ and raise the alcoholic’s bottom!  How do you do that?  Simple; don’t carry him/her along once you suspect alcohol ‘dependency.’

First of all, get to know the people in your flying unit; gain their trust and respect.  Then remember, ‘I don’t think like you do; unless you’re an alcoholic.’  (Sorry, couldn’t help but toss that out…it’s my nature to screw with folks).  If you confront me directly with an accusation that I ‘abuse alcohol,’ in any way, shape or form – direct, indirect or subtle – I am going to dig my heals in and resist.  My defenses will come up immediately!  When I was drinking I always saw a Flight Surgeon as more ‘threatening’ than a North Vietnamese gunner.  The Flight Surgeon had the potential to ruin my career; the gunner was just going to kill me.

You don’t do me any favors by carrying me through ‘the System.’  Alcoholism never ‘gets better’ on its own.  It’s a progressive, chronic and fatal disease.  So, I would suggest beginning by ‘expressing your concern,’ on an informal basis when you suspect alcohol dependency in someone.  Keep your initial conversation confidential, and low-key; and own it yourself.  “I am concerned with your drinking,” is a good approach, and back your statements with personal observations and/or collateral input.  This kind of approach tells me you are concerned, but not ‘threatening; at least at this point.  And it also ‘puts me on notice.’

As the situation warrants, there comes the time to direct the individual to an ‘alcohol assessment.’  What I am advocating here is to begin ‘the history.’  At some point in time, it will become obvious to everyone what the issue is; alcoholism.  If the individual returns with an assessment of ‘non alcoholic,’ so be it.  Again, he or she is ‘on notice.’

Just as the Cop doesn’t do me any favors, as an alcoholic, by ‘letting me go, this time’ after stopping me for a ‘suspected DUI,’ the Flight Doc doesn’t do me any favors by ignoring the warning signs of early stage alcoholism; elevated liver values, ‘stomach problems,’ sleep disorders, personal observations at squadron functions, collateral observations, etc.  The ‘first call’ is the toughest; it gets simpler after that – kinda like learning to say ‘no’ as a parent.

Today, I enjoy a good life.  In ‘sobriety’ there is ‘hope’ for me, whereas while I was drinking, I just didn’t care about anything, or anyone.  I am often asked, “Do you think you could have gotten sober had someone confronted you with your drinking while on active duty?”  Tough one; don’t know.  I can tell you however, when I was assessed ‘alcoholic’ by my airline and the FAA, I was given a choice – “Drink, or fly, but not both.”  That made it real simple for me, and I understood it — with great clarity.  Initially my ‘motivation’ for not drinking was to continue my flying career (I suppose), but slowly, ever so slowly, I have come to realize that ‘flying’ isn’t my life; LIVING is!  If flying were the only motivation I had for not drinking, what do you think I would do when I turned 60, with mandatory retirement from the airlines?  And herein is the blessing that the ‘drink or fly’ policy has given me; a second chance at life.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to pass on a few of my ‘lessons learned’ with respect to my alcoholism.  I see my alcoholism as the greatest ‘blessing’ I have ever been given; it has ‘opened my eyes,’ and taught me so much.  And, to keep what I have learned, I know I have to ‘give it away.’  Thank you….

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