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ADAPT program can help problem drinkers

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Sometimes they don't want to talk.

That's when Mildred Fitch, a substance abuse counselor with the 72nd MDOS, puts down her pen and shares her own stories.

"Sometimes that opening up makes a change," she says. "I feel really privileged when they feel comfortable enough to share with me."

As a counselor with the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program for the last 10 years, Ms. Fitch has heard many stories, both funny and tragic. One session she may be counseling a widower who has turned to alcohol to cope, in another listening to a young Airman recount how he mistakenly entered someone else's house while intoxicated. Regardless of the reason, they all come for counseling.

"Whether its underage drinking, public intoxication or DUI, it doesn't matter," Ms. Fitch says. "Our mission is to help people to either transform or conform to Air Force standards."

Those standards are high. Several years ago the Air Force instituted the 0-0-1-3 program, which means zero tolerance for underage drinking, zero incidents of driving under the influence, limiting oneself to one drink per hour and no more than three drinks total per drinking episode. The Air Force isn't promoting abstinence, but it does expect responsibility.

"If it's a person's choice to drink, they need to do it responsibly and not let it develop into an addiction," Ms. Fitch says.

Any active duty person cited on- or off-base for an alcohol-related incident is sent to one of ADAPT's three counselors, where they are screened to determine if the incident was a result of behavior or is symptomatic of a larger problem. Gone are the mandatory eight-hour classes concerning alcohol use. In their place are individual counseling sessions where counselors interpret the results of the screening process to tailor-make the treatment for each client.

Instituted last year, the one-on-one sessions allow counselors to concentrate on an individual's specific issues. Although the change in approach is less than a year old, Ms. Fitch said the feedback to the individual counseling is positive.

ADAPT counselors also provide information through lectures, commander's calls and anytime a unit needs advice or information on alcohol or substance abuse. Young Airmen, especially those newly posted, are at risk because of the social convention of going to on or off-base parties where alcohol serves as an icebreaker.

"Often times they gravitate toward the drinking crowd because it's easy to get into and appears to be the ones that are having the most fun," she said. The sad part is they often times experience severe consequences for their involvement in the group.

The latest statistics bear this out. There were 39 incidents of underage drinking in 2007 and 2008. Ms. Fitch said young Airmen under 21 are constantly reminded that underage drinking is illegal, regardless of where they are, including their own room. Other means of awareness are the That Guy campaign and Culture of Responsible Choices posters and events.

"I still get some Airmen that say that if I am old enough to serve my country, I'm old enough to drink," Ms. Fitch said. "But regardless of their feelings, it's against the AF policy and the law."

Those hosting parties can also face penalties if any of their guests are underage drinkers. Social hosting laws hold the host responsible as well as the offender. In any event, she said, those caught breaking alcohol laws are sent for counseling. And, in most cases Ms. Fitch says, that is where it ends.

"Once they complete the recommended counseling or treatment, we close that file," she said. "And that file remains closed unless they make another poor choice in relation to alcohol."

But in some cases, she says, alcohol use is the symptom of larger personal problems. That's why the counseling sessions are tailored to the individual and not solely to the incident that prompted the counseling.

Those diagnosed with alcoholism are sent for treatment and group sessions. Alcoholism isn't necessarily a career-ender, she said, provided they receive treatment without continued recidivism. In fact, Ms. Fitch says some of the more successful speakers are those who have overcome alcoholism to resume successful military careers.

Even if alcohol use doesn't end a career, it can still cost. Driving under the influence means the loss of driving privileges on base for one year, not to mention legal fees and fines.

"If they get a DUI on or off base, they lose their driving privileges for a year," she said. "And depending on what happens for a DUI, the fines can be astronomical."

In some cases, there can be administrative action. If underage, it could result in an Article 15. Flight crews especially face tough measures if caught violating alcohol laws as they can be removed from flight duties until they complete with ADAPT.

"They can be down for over a year if they receive a diagnosis," she said. "If a flier really cares about their career, then they need to make some responsible choices." But, Ms. Fitch says, sometimes she sees the same people again. Not because they've made another poor choice, but to say thank you.

"While we can't save them all," she says. "If I can give hope to one, it's worth it."