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Soldiers volunteer weekends to curb drunken driving

Aug. 31, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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At the bars around Fort Wainwright, Alaska, they all know Spc. Albert Rodrigues, even though his van is unmarked.

For soldiers who have had too many drinks to drive, Rodrigues is their angel in the night. A driver for Soldiers Against Drunk Driving, Rodrigues has volunteered 852 hours shuttling home soldiers, Army civilians and their dependents who had been drinking.

For Rodrigues, it’s personal. He and his father were hospitalized after being hit by a drunken driver in their native India in 1994. He said he has seen the damage alcohol abuse has wrought on friends and colleagues.

“I’ve seen a lot of my good friends lose their careers because of alcohol, and I’ve seen friends who lost their families; their marriages ended because of alcohol,” Rodrigues, 42, told Army Times. “I’ve also seen a family that lost their loved one because of drunk driving — someone very close to me.”

There are other SADD chapters around the Army and other shuttle services, but the effort at Fort Wainwright may be the coldest.

“We are here for soldiers, even in subzero temperatures, we come to pick them up, even when it’s negative 54 [degrees],” Rodrigues said. “Call us and get a safe ride home.”

The hottest might be credited to Spc. Tyler Rouse, the 24-year-old CEO and founder of No DUI El Paso. The Fort Bliss, Texas, organization runs alcohol education programs and shuttles home anyone too drunk to drive in El Paso — not just Army personnel — by using volunteers to drive the client’s car.

The program’s volunteers, nearly all active-duty soldiers, have shepherded home more than 1,900 people since its inception in 2012, Rouse said. Nonsoldier volunteers must submit to a background check for traffic, assault and theft offenses.

“I don’t have any specific [personal] story about drinking and driving, and it’s not like I’ve seen anybody’s career go down the drain,” Rouse said. “I just saw a need.”

The El Paso service is officially available from 11 p.m. until 2:30 a.m., though the volunteers “continue to provide rides until everyone is taken care of.”

Rouse said he’s had only three weekends off since he started No DUI El Paso, and some nights he doesn’t get home until 6 a.m., but he gets satisfaction from knowing he’s made a difference.

Rouse, a helicopter maintainer, said he hopes to expand the program nationwide, particularly to other posts, before he leaves the Army next year.

The rides are free to its clientele, it uses an all-volunteer staff, and its budget is $300 per month. For that, Rouse said the program has cut DUIs among soldiers at Fort Bliss by 24 percent.

“What drives me is how do we get this lower than 24 percent,” he said.

Helping battle buddies

Rodrigues, originally from Mangalore, India, came to the U.S. in 2005, and joined the Army four years ago. As a lab tech, he draws blood samples and runs tests at the medical post’s laboratory. A poster calling for SADD volunteers captured his attention after he came to the post in 2010.

“After seeing so many bad things happening with alcohol, I decided to offer my services, even if it is in the wee hours of the night, to help my battle buddies,” he said.

The Army named him Fort Wainwright Volunteer of the Year for 2012.

Rodrigues is one of four drivers, and a dispatcher, who operate the service from 11 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and federal holidays. Rodrigues, sometimes joined by his wife when he’s short on volunteers, answers calls to shuttle people home from bars and parties, and then makes the rounds at the bars after 2:30 a.m.

“When they call, we give them a time frame so that they know their call is answered and help is on the way,” he said. “Within 10 or 15 minutes’ time, they know to finish drinking, pay their bill and be ready downstairs.”

On average, he will scoop up as many as four people an hour, and on a recent weekend, he shuttled home 62 soldiers.

Generally, the passengers are “extremely grateful.” If they get aggressive, Rodrigues said he has their buddies calm them down. If they get sick, there are bags in the van for them to use.

“I don’t complain about it at all; at least they’re not endangering themselves or other soldiers’ lives,” he said.

Before allowing a passenger aboard, Rodrigues insists on seeing a military ID card. When dropping them off, he makes sure they make it inside “and are not exposed to any cold weather.”

“We have extreme cold weather, and sometimes people may be too disoriented to know what building they’re in,” he said.

Soldiers like the service because there is no chain-of-command involvement, and no questions asked, he said.

What drives the driver?

“I hate to see drunk drivers on the road,” Rodrigues said. “That’s something that really, really bothers me a lot. Once you get behind the wheel, it impairs your judgment and it can result in a loss of life to you or someone else.”

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