By 1st Lt. Jason T. Cowan, Mississippi National Guard, Gulfport, Miss.May 20, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. - Growing up in the early 1980s in Mississippi, I performed a number of unsafe activities on a daily basis - whether just for fun or because nobody knew any better. We flew through the woods on dirt bikes, jumped off bridges into the creeks below and operated large farm equipment at way too early an age, just to name a few. I remember being 5 years old and riding on the fender of my grandfather's tractor while he ran the disc over his field before planting crops, usually at a pretty good rate of speed. Looking back, one slip is all it would have taken for me to have been chopped to pieces!
As I got older and wiser, I saw the risks in these activities and, for the most part, avoided them altogether. Nowadays, the only real inherently unsafe activity I perform on a routine basis is riding an all-terrain vehicle - or as we call it in the South, four-wheeler riding.
Throughout my 25 years of riding, I've seen many injuries that could've been avoided had it not been for one thing - alcohol. Of course, when we were younger, my friends and I were not riding around drinking beer. As I got older, though, I saw it happening more and more. It seemed like every time we got together to ride on the weekends, everyone brought their own cooler packed with beer.
My regular riding group was comprised of folks of all ages and experience levels, including a local law enforcement detective. The one thing we had in common was the enjoyment of regular beer breaks. It was as much a social experience as riding experience. Nobody was ever concerned or took into account the fact that this was not only illegal, but also completely unsafe.
It wasn't until about five years ago that I realized how alcohol affected me as a rider. A friend and I were riding in a spot we had been to dozens of times, and nothing was out of the ordinary except for the fact that I'd had a few beers over the course of the last couple of hours. We came to a ravine about 20 feet deep that I had passed many times before. What was different today, though, is that all of a sudden it looked like a very good challenge to test my skills as a rider.
After stepping off my ATV to get a better look at the ravine, I decided I should have no problem negotiating to the other side. Upon the initial descent, however, my front left tire went into a hole covered with brush, and the four-wheeler began to roll forward and to the left. I immediately bailed off the side, rolled down the ravine and landed at the bottom in some thick mud and water. The four-wheeler tumbled behind me and landed on my arm, pinning it. My buddy jumped down to help free me, and we eventually recovered my four-wheeler from the ravine.
When I got home, I realized how lucky I'd been. The whole reason I'd tried to negotiate the ravine in the first place was because my judgment was clouded by alcohol. To this day, I don't have even a sip of alcohol if I know I'm going to be riding my four-wheeler. And during our breaks, I make sure and have a fresh pouch of Levi Garrett instead of a cooler full of Bud Light.
We, as leaders, must understand the activities our younger troops are participating in during their down time. Many of you may not know that alcohol is so prevalent in recreational four-wheeling, especially if you've never been a rider. If you have a young Soldier heading out for a weekend of ATV riding, make sure he or she understands the importance or abstaining from alcohol. You might just save a life.