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Drunk driver kills airman’s father

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey (AFPN) -- At 14, most people are not normally faced with a lifetime of pondering the aftermath of mixing together enormous amounts of alcohol, one out-of-control drunk and a weapon on wheels gunned at more than 100 mph.

However, one leader here faces just that.

“At 43, the signs (of my father’s death by a drunk driver) are still there,” said Col. Michael Arnold, 39th Air Base Group deputy commander. “My children don’t have a grandfather, and I didn’t get the chance to know him.”

His father was killed 29 years ago in a vehicle accident that played out like a bad chase scene from a B-movie. Only it was real.

Sirens blaring, the police chased a drunk driver several miles down the wrong way on Interstate 285 outside Atlanta. The driver suddenly crossed up an entrance ramp, drove through a stoplight and barreled down an exit ramp.

Arnold’s father was headed up the same exit ramp. The two vehicles collided head-on. The resulting impact instantaneously killed his father and took the life of the drunk driver’s passenger. Miraculously, although paralyzed, the driver lived.

“Three families’ lives were disrupted because of one night of drinking,” Arnold said.

When the call about his father’s death came, Arnold was sitting at the breakfast bar in the family’s apartment. He remembered his mother answered the phone in the kitchen and did not utter a word. When she hung up, she turned to him and said, “Something happened. The highway patrol is coming to the house.”

When they arrived, his mother was stunned into silence and remained that way for a long time. After the funeral, Arnold said he would often find her sitting very still in the living room staring into space for long periods of time.

He was in shock as well. As a young teen, Arnold suddenly became the man of the house.

His mom became a single parent struggling to make ends meet, and he did not have any siblings to rely on. He confessed life was difficult without a father to show him the way. He even learned how to play basketball from a book. No one was there to teach him.

“When I played football in high school, I would look up in the stands, but unlike all the other kids I didn’t have parents cheering me on,” Arnold said. “I always wondered why it had to be that way.”

Quickly, the shock of his father’s death was replaced with anger. Years later, he said he resolved to see the good in an ugly situation.

Arnold said he has decided not to be a victim and uses his experiences to engage airmen in conversations about driving under the influence -- discussions that might save their lives, the lives of loved ones or strangers.

“I tell people about the real, no foolin’ cost of a DUI,” Arnold said. “DUIs happen infrequently enough that in everyday life people are detached from the issue. You have to keep talking about the tragedy.

“If you drink and drive, and nothing happens, you’re lucky. If it goes bad, the consequences are all out of proportion to the excitement of one night of drinking,” said the husband and father of four.

Arnold said he believes in the power of learning from others’ mistakes. It is why he spent countless commander’s calls explaining the price to everyone impacted by the ripple effect of drinking and driving.

For him, it means he cannot share life’s joys and sorrows with his father.

“I missed the opportunity to say, ‘Hey dad, I made colonel,’ or ‘I’m going to Turkey,’ or ‘Dad, the boys are driving me crazy. What can I do?’” Arnold said.

So he said he keeps telling the story about his father, hoping that it will keep people from turning the ignition key and smashing their vehicle into someone else’s father, grandmother, brother, child or best friend.

“When you get into a car drunk, you have no idea how it will turn out,” Arnold said. “Most of the time, you’ll make it home without an incident. That gives people a false sense of security. Because when it turns bad, it’s a catastrophe.

“The time to think about drinking and driving is before the first drink,” he said.

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