Commentary: Captain’s dreams ended by drunken driver

By Senior Airman Emerald Ralston: 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. — Capt. Alan Yee had just finished pilot training and was out with friends celebrating. He and his friends realized they had one too many drinks to drive, and called a cab. As they were travelling down a 50 mph road, a truck slammed into their cab. Moments later, one friend in the cab was ejected out of the back, another friend was choking on his own blood, one friend had his knee severely injured, and Yee’s neck was broken.

In an instant, the captain’s dreams of becoming a pilot, taking the fast track through Air Force schooling and training were shattered like the windows of the cab. The person in the oncoming vehicle chose not to call that cab, but instead got behind the wheel of her truck with a blood-alcohol level of 0.17; more than twice the legal limit.

The crash happened to Captain Yee of the 92nd Operations Group more than a year ago, but the effects are still apparent today.

After wearing a halo brace — a device that sits around the head supported by screws drilled into the skull and rods that come down into a vest to keep the head and neck steady — for three months, Yee then wore a neck brace for three more months. Despite those efforts, he still has a broken neck and currently wears electrodes on his neck to stimulate bone growth.

His dreams of being a pilot are over, and he will likely never be able to sit in the cockpit of an aircraft again.

While this tragedy affected many lives, no one was killed, although they were all expected to be dead, Yee said.

“The injuries were pretty significant and a bit of a miracle in a sense,” he said. “The (National Transportation Safety Board) stops crash safety tests at 35 mph. We had a combined impact of 100 mph. At that point, everyone is expected to be dead.”

The combined injuries in the vehicle were massive. The cab driver had a broken pelvis, broken ribs and broken wrist. He took three steps out of the cab and collapsed, unable to support his own weight, Yee said. The passenger sitting in front had torn knee ligaments. Yee was sitting on the right side in the middle row of the minivan cab and broke his neck and ankle. The passenger on the middle left side fractured his voice box, broke his jaw, clavicle, teeth and arm. The passenger in the back seat of the cab was ejected as the vehicle was still moving 50 mph and ended up with the least injuries, primarily scaring on his face.

The knowledge of self-aid and buddy care skills saved one of the airmen from dying in the incident.

“My advice to people is to know self-aid and buddy care,” Yee said. “My friend in front recognized that my buddy to the left of me was choking on his own blood, but he couldn’t get out of his seat. The doors were jammed shut from the severity of impact. So he turned around and held up the other guy’s head, opened his airway and saved his life. During this time, he was tapping me on the foot and talking to me, making sure I was still conscious.”

The drunk driver stepped out of her 2008 four-door Chevy Silverado with no injuries, only to blow 0.17 blood alcohol content and be placed under arrest.

The consequences the driver faced seem pale in comparison to the effects her choice made on the lives of four airmen and the cab driver. She served 30 days in prison and received two years of probation, while Yee traded in all his training and pushes for advancement in his career for a lifetime of doctor visits and being denied what he had worked so diligently to attain.

He highlighted the importance of having a plan.

“Definitely don’t be the guy who is going to get the next DUI,” he said. “You don’t want to put someone else in my position. You can never go wrong with having a good plan. If a bunch of friends are going out and spending $100 or $200 on drinks, what is another $20 for a cab? If you can spend that much on alcohol but you can’t afford the cab, your financial priorities aren’t right.”

Through it all, Yee has maintained an optimistic outlook on life, taking the accident as a reminder to live and be thankful.

“It’s one of those things you just have to deal with,” he said. “It’s just the set of cards you’re dealt in life. I’m happy to be alive, happy to still be in the Air Force, happy to have the opportunity to go to (unmanned aircraft), which is a very progressive area of the Air Force. A lot of great things have actually happened as a result of my accident. I even met my wife this way.”

Physical fitness and preparedness were important aspects of his ordeal. Being physically fit helped save Yee’s life because his neck muscles were strong enough to support his head when his neck broke.

While Yee’s medical and professional futures are uncertain, staying positive and remembering the importance of these things helps to keep him going.

“The scars I received from the accident and the screws drilled into my skull are a constant reminder every time I look in the mirror of the result of someone else’s decision to get behind the wheel of a vehicle drunk,” he said.

“But it really does change your focus on what you appreciate in life and how much time you have with your loved ones … and I have handicapped tags now, which is pretty sweet,” he said with a laugh.