Lowest common denominator

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen Petters
  • 48th Component Maintenance Squadron commander
My daughter caught me napping the other day, and with all the enthusiasm a 10-year-old on a mission can possess, asked me to help her find the lowest common denominator of the four fractions on her paper.

For those of you, who like me, might be a little fuzzy on the concept, the lowest common denominator is the smallest whole number that divides evenly into the denominator of all the fractions in question. In other words, it’s a number present in all the fractions being considered.

I believe this concept can be applied to some of the discipline problems affecting many Airmen in our Air Force, from vandalism and fights to sexual assaults and DUIs. What’s the lowest common denominator here? I believe its alcohol.

I know for some of you the hairs on the back of your neck just stood up, as you quickly regrouped behind the “alcohol doesn’t kill people, people kill people” defense. Maybe ... but what I can tell you with surety, having served in our Air Force for 16 and a half years, is about 90 percent of negative personnel actions I’ve dealt with involved alcohol. In a good number of the cases, alcohol was not just present, but rather the tipping point, or crucial factor, that took otherwise outstanding Airmen and changed their career path from senior airman below-the-zone to civilian below-the-zone.

Let me tell you what I’ve seen throughout my career:

-- Men and women left vulnerable to crimes, too incapacitated to defend themselves
-- Men and women who committed crimes, too drunk to live to decent standards of behavior
-- Car accidents where Airman ruined their health for life
-- Airmen who spent nights in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning
-- Airmen with DUI convictions, resulting in career altering punishments

Sure, the majority of AF personnel drink responsibly, but that doesn’t mean the lowest common denominator is irrelevant to them. They share the roads with, work with, party with, clean up after, arrest and provide medical care for those who are less than responsible when they drink.

I’d venture a guess there are very few of us who haven’t dealt with some negative effect of alcohol abuse; working extra hours because one or more of your shop mates is unavailable due to disciplinary action or medical work done in response to an alcohol related incident, or spent a chunk of your weekend babysitting a troop you supervise because they can’t seem to resist the siren song of karaoke night.

If your life has become a perpetual search for the next watering hole, you find yourself day after day heading from work to the club to your room to pass out, can’t remember chunks of time in your life after you drink, drink to get wasted, can tell me exactly how many mixed drinks it takes until you pass out, or laughed as you read these examples; something is wrong -- you have yet to understand how serious this issue is.

In the end it really is ‘all about you.’ If you see yourself in the paragraphs above, get help now. Talk to a friend, supervisor or first sergeant; or call the folks at the base Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program. They have a whole box full of tools to teach you how to use alcohol responsibly -- as you would with any other legal drug.

Most of all, sit down today, look in the mirror, and be honest with yourself. It’s not too late to put things right, and stop letting alcohol control your life.

For some folks that may mean walking away from alcohol forever; but for most it simply means getting the tools required to understand this is destructive behavior.

In our Air Force excellence in all we do isn’t a sometimes thing -- it’s our lowest common denominator.