HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. —
Whether you are taking the edge off during times of stress or celebrating milestones with friends and family, it is important to maintain responsible drinking habits. But when does a single casual drink on the weekend become a habitual daily drink?
Like many Airmen, drinking was just another way to socialize for Airman 1st Class Alicia Holcomb, 49th Equipment Maintenance Squadron’s munitions systems specialist, until it began to define her military career.
“Sometimes it is hard to go to work, because everybody there knows this very personal thing about you,” said Holcomb. “I have always valued myself for being a hard worker and worked hard to build up a reputation that would make my leadership proud, but every milestone I achieved did not hold as much weight as my drinking did.”
Holcomb enlisted in the Air Force during the late-spring of 2017 with an open mechanical contract.
“Even though being away from my family was hard, I think Basic Military Training was the easiest part of my whole life,” said Holcomb. “I was not trying to fit in with a group of friends I knew were bad for me and my temptation to drink was gone.”
Shortly after BMT, Holcomb began drinking again.
Drinking during technical school is not a crime as long as the rules of the Airman drinking of-age are followed, but the devil is in the detail – Holcomb was under the age of 21.
“In the state of Texas, underage drinking is permitted in a public establishment with a parent or legal guardian present,” said Holcomb. “My mom does not drink at all and never has approved of me drinking, but I drank frequently with my dad. We always found a reason to justify going out to eat and having a few drinks.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research shows that young people’s brains keep developing well into their 20s. Alcohol can alter this development, potentially affecting both brain structure and function. This may cause cognitive or learning problems and/or make the brain more prone to alcohol dependence. This is especially a risk when people start drinking heavily at a young age.
“I was using alcohol to cope with my emotions at a very young age before I knew it was a problem,” said Holcomb. “Did I pass a test? Time to drink. Fail a test? Time to drink. The excuses were endless, but I will not blame my father for the choices I have made in my own life. I know he did not mean to set me up this way. Remembering what I have learned through this program will definitely be instilled in me for when I am a parent.”
Following her underage drinking in tech school at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Holcomb was issued a letter of reprimand and directed to attend Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program by her commander.
“I needed to make a change in my life,” said Holcomb. “I was so selfish and put my drinking habit before people I truly cared about, but I would have never admitted that back then. I did not want to arrive at my first base as the Airman nobody wanted to put any time into because of the careless choices I had made.”
Upon arriving to her first duty station, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Holcomb worked hard to learn her job during duty hours and worked hard to study her career development courses after duty hours. She was also selected to participate in the 2018 Air Force Combat Operations Competition at Beale Air Force Base, California.
“Before AFCOCOMP, Holloman was the furthest away I had ever been from Texas,” said Holcomb, as she laughed about the short distance between New Mexico and Texas. “Going to California with my team and winning first place was a very high point in my life. It was the most motivated and excited I have ever been about my career. But when we returned, everything was different – I was different.”
The award-winning munitions team returned to their own lives on Holloman, and the camaraderie that was sustained in California, began to degenerate.
Holcomb’s loneliness challenged her integrity. But after an alcohol-related incident interfered with her career, Holcomb felt compelled to open up with her leadership and self-enrolled in Holloman’s ADAPT program.
ADAPT is responsible for preventative education, assessments and outpatient treatment that help Airmen with drug and alcohol disorders get back to a world-wide qualified deployment status.
“Airman 1st Class Holcomb has made remarkable changes in the short time I have known her,” said Capt. Kyra Santiago, 49th Medical Group ADAPT element chief. “When she enrolled in the program, she was binge drinking and spending her weekends in bed, hungover, and was very adamant about wanting to end her Air Force career early. She was a completely different person.”
Underage drinking is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but having the integrity to be honest with her command and self-enroll for help prevented Holcomb from facing disciplinary actions, including administrative separation.
“I thought it would be easy to stop drinking and it was not,” said Holcomb. “My counselor would say, ‘You are underage. You cannot keep doing this,’ and it was a rude wake-up call, because he was right. If you would have asked me if I had a problem when I started the program, I would have told you it was a habit and not a problem.”
Treatment includes individual counseling, weekly group appointments, random labs and breathalyzers, and all patients must be actively working toward their short-term goals in different areas of life.
Holcomb was sent to rehab for 28 days in the local area because she was struggling to stay sober during the mandatory 90-day sobriety phase of her treatment.
After patients meet this expectation, they are monitored once a month to see if they are using the tools they have been given to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“(Holcomb) enjoyed drinking with others which made staying sober difficult for her, so we took her out of the environment she felt the most pressured to drink in,” said Santiago. “After 28-days in rehab, she came back a new woman. She told me she was motivated and ready to get back to work and begin pursuing her education – describing this feeling of having her light turned back on after years of darkness.”
Now that Holcomb is of legal drinking age, she practices her treatment goal to drink responsibly; Santiago said drinking responsibly entails setting a limit and having a plan.
“To maintain the progress I have made, I had to cut out some people from my life that are not supportive of my decision to drink responsibly,” said Holcomb. “Walking away from my new friends was a tough pill to swallow, but my counselor is always there to remind me that real friends have more in common than drinking together. If they do not, they are not a real friend.”
Airmen are at times discouraged to seek ADAPT in fear of ending their Air Force careers, but Holcomb and Santiago agree that is almost never the case.
“Telling anyone who feels they may have a drinking problem not to seek help is bad advice,” said Santiago. “If you feel like you are drinking too much on the weekends because there is nothing to do or are pressured to drink, reach out to the professionals at ADAPT for a confidential consultation. No Airman will be automatically enrolled in treatment because they drink too much.”
The majority of Airmen that consult with ADAPT only come in for a few educational sessions and recommendations on responsible drinking, which does not include mandatory sobriety, a treatment plan, a profile or any adverse outcomes for one’s career.
“(Holcomb) had courage to speak up about her problem, even though it hurt her to do it,” said Santiago. “She has overcome so much – conquering her fears and challenging herself every step of the way during her time here.”
Holcomb’s ADAPT journey has not been perfect, but she continues to persevere in times of weakness so she can complete her program this summer. Continuing to pursue a relapse-free recovery, she will work with the ADAPT staff to help rebuild any skills that may have been lacking.
“(ADAPT) has made me a better person, even if it took me awhile to open up and accept it,” said Holcomb. “When I become a non-commissioned officer, I am going to have these experiences to share with my Airmen. I hope they can learn from my mistakes. If you are not willing to listen, you are not going to hear anything.”