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Discussing tragedies to prevent future ones

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- Florida fire fighter Ronny Garcia left the balmy, white-sand and palm tree laden beaches of his home state to deliver a somber message to the Black Hills community and Ellsworth's Airmen. 

"Take care of your friends; don't let them drive after drinking," he said. "Live a long and healthy life and don't become another preventable statistic." 

The words are meant to drive home the premise of a speaker's bureau known as Stay Alive From Education. 

SAFE features members of the medical and law enforcement community who share their no-hold barred and gritty honest experiences with audiences in high schools, colleges and military installations. 

They don't pull any punches either. Just ask SAFE speaker Sarah Panzau. 

Ms. Panzau delivers a hard-hitting presentation to every audience she speaks to. In one portion of the briefing, she points to a picture taken of her mangled body just minutes after a near-fatal crash and tells her listeners, "This piece right here, hanging off the stretcher next to the blue strap ... that was my left arm." 

Her blood alcohol level was nearly four times the legal limit when she rolled her car at the age of 21. 

Mr. Garcia contends the straight-to-the-point presentation is meant to show audiences the very real dangers associated with risky behavior coupled with alcohol use. 

The SAFE team would rather "make a difference in young people's lives in a speaking session rather than a street session," Mr. Garcia said. 

Jim Franz, director of consumer awareness and education for a distributing company in the Black Hills area, said the aim of the SAFE program is fourfold. 

SAFE focuses on "preventing underage drinking, preventing drunk driving, promoting responsible drinking among adults and bringing all these efforts together to address college drinking." 

Mr. Franz said college drinking is a unique issue due to the collegiate environment has people both of legal drinking age and people who aren't. 

The SAFE message was not lost on Ellsworth's Airmen who attended the briefing. Staff Sgt. Kevin Pike, 28th Bomb Wing chaplain assistant, said the time he spent listening to the production was well spent. 

"The information presented was precise and to the point," he said. "Many people think there's nothing to do at Ellsworth and unfortunately many young airmen turn to alcohol as an escape or time killer. 

"It's through lapse of judgment and sensory depression that bad decisions are made. The presentation today drove the point home that not only your stripes are at risk, but your very life," said Sergeant Pike. 

Another Airman echoed Sergeant Pike's comments and went on to say he recommends this briefing for everyone. 

Sergeant Talmage Williams, 28th Munitions Squadron munitions storage crew chief, who was used on-stage during the presentation in a mock scenario, noted one way to ensure everyone had a good time safely was to have a back-up. 

Everyone should have a plan if they plan to drink alcohol, he said. He added an alternate plan, in case the first plan fails, is also a good idea. 

"I believe this briefing would actually help a lot of young Airmen think about their choices or decisions before drinking and driving," said Sergeant Williams. 

"I'd recommend everyone attend no matter what age and rank." 

Mr. Garcia said he thinks the numbers speak for themselves in regards to the amount of people the SAFE program has touched and he especially enjoyed giving the presentation to Ellsworth's Airmen. 

"We've reached more than 100,000 with our message each year for the last three years," he said. "It's always a privilege to give something back to our military personnel who do so much for us," he added. 

As Sarah Panzau concludes her briefing, she reflects on what has been on the mind of every young person involved in a life-altering tragedy. 

"You hear about it happening to other people. It's not supposed to happen to people like us, is it?" 

Mr. Franz points out Sarah was one of the "it can't happen to me" people. 

"She'd been a 21-year old All-American volleyball player with her whole life ahead of her," he said. 

One of the goals of SAFE is to prevent young people "from becoming a statistic like her," Mr. Franz added. 

More information can be found on the SAFE Program at www.safeprogram.com.