Life after a DUI: A Vandenberg Airman's struggle to overcome alcohol addiction

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Trey Lewis, a photographer with 30th Space Wing Public Affairs office, compares the life he led to the one he lives now. Airman Lewis lived life in the fast lane until May 2005 when he was arrested for driving under the influence in San Luis Obispo, Calif. However, Airman Lewis has used his mistake to show others the negative consequences of risky living and has devoted his life to helping others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Satran)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Senior Airman Trey Lewis, a photographer with 30th Space Wing Public Affairs office, compares the life he led to the one he lives now. Airman Lewis lived life in the fast lane until May 2005 when he was arrested for driving under the influence in San Luis Obispo, Calif. However, Airman Lewis has used his mistake to show others the negative consequences of risky living and has devoted his life to helping others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew Satran)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Part Two: Turn the Page

Editor's Note: This is part two of a three-part series about the success of a Vandenberg Airman's longtime battle with alcohol and his life changing experience after receiving a Driving Under the Influence charge. Part one covered the Airman's history of alcohol abuse and how that led him to the situation below.

By the time Senior Airman Trey Lewis, a photographer with the 30th Space Wing Public Affairs office, was processed at the San Luis Obispo County Jail for a DUI, it was already about 2 a.m. and the drunk tank was full.

"All the seats were taken and the only empty spot was on the ground right next to the toilet," he remembered as he gave a shudder. "I just sat down, hunched over and fell asleep. When I woke up, there were two guys trying to come up with ideas on how to beat the crystal meth charges they were facing.

"It's not really the picture you have in your head of your future after you sign up for the Air Force," he added laughing.

Shortly after waking up, he was released to the chief in his squadron and his supervisor's supervisor, with whom he had little or no experience.

Due to a change in wing leadership at the time Airman Lewis' punishment was kept within the squadron.

"I guess I was kind of fortunate that I never had to explain myself to the wing commander," he explained, "but I had to stand at attention in front of pretty much every leader within the squadron. It was really a humbling experience."

Airman Lewis would eventually pay a $1,609 fine and attend a mandatory driving class, which cost him another $478. All this plus the large increase in the cost of his car insurance left a huge dent in his wallet. He also went through the agony of walking by his car every day to get into the passenger seat of a friend's car. He did this for an entire year.

But all that paled in comparison to the way he felt at work.

"I felt like I was this giant stain on my unit and on the Air Force as a whole," he said. "I had to stand in front of my entire squadron and give an apology.

"Everyone likes to think that the first time they get introduced to their whole squadron it would be to receive some kind of award not give an apology because you screwed up," he added while shaking his head.

And after all the embarrassment and humiliation, Airman Lewis still continued to drink.

"I kept it up for about another two months," he explained. "It wasn't until I was at a party with a couple of people I thought were my friends that it finally dawned on me. I thought to myself, 'What am I doing?' All of the sudden I was talking to these people about how destructive this was.

"Talk about a buzz kill!" he said with a chuckle.

The following duty day, without really knowing what next step to take, he decided to go and talk to the chaplain. After having a long discussion with him, the chaplain recommended Celebrate Recovery, a faith-based 12-step alcohol recovery program. He only ended up going to this program a couple of times before heading to Calvary Chapel, a nationwide, non-denominational church.

"Everybody needs to find their own thing that helps them; but ultimately God was what I needed to help me remove myself from situations I always put myself in," he said.

Ultimately, the hardest part of Airman Lewis' recovery was finding a new way to find to spend his weekends.

"My biggest struggle was shedding the image of 'Trey the party guy'," he explained. "I spent 25 years of my life being that guy, and I needed to find a new identity."

This didn't sit so well with his old friends though.

"After about six months, my so-called friends were starting to get pretty upset that I wasn't coming to hang out with them," he said. "What they didn't seem to realize was if I continued that life, I was going to end up dying at a very early age."

Other people noticed the change and helped him along his path to recovery. Senior Master Sgt. Russell Howell, then Airman Lewis' first sergeant, saw Airman Lewis' inner fight and thought he may need some help.

"I was shocked when I learned of Trey's DUI," Sergeant Howell said. "I remember wondering, 'What kind of Airman gets a DUI while still attending FTAC?' Since we had not yet met, and I had already formed an opinion of him, I was not looking forward to having 'that conversation' with the new Airman.

"After meeting Trey, however, I had a different mindset. He seemed sincerely sorry for what he had done," he said. "Not because of the shame or embarrassment he brought on himself, but more for how he let his squadron down.

"I told him how many Airmen often let this type of thing be their downfall; they let it ruin their careers. I reminded him our goal is to keep the consequences of a DUI, to both the Airman and the Air Force, to a minimum. We discussed several options for turning this huge negative into a positive," he said.

After a while, Airman Lewis finally felt like he may be getting his life straightened out. It was only then he felt like maybe he could help others make the right choice when they went out to have some fun on the weekend.

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out www.vandenberg.af.mil next week to see how Airman Lewis used his experience to help others make the right decision about drinking and driving when their time to choose came:

"I'm not a counselor or anything. But sometimes it helps them out to just sit and listen." - Airman Lewis said.