It was in the dark, early hours of a cold December morning that Patrick M. Patterson, a 19-year-old Army soldier, drove his 1965 Ford Mustang past a stop sign at 60 miles an hour and into another car in Arlington. The crash killed the other driver and put a passenger into a coma.
Patterson, who said he had never had a drink until he joined the Army a year earlier, remembers nothing about the crash. He was hopelessly drunk.
Patterson, who subsequently was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, said he accepts responsibility for the accident. "It was my own judgment that got me into the car . . . . I'm the one that got behind the wheel," he said in an interview.
But he said it was the Army's life style -- base service clubs with cheap drinks and acceptance of alcoholic servicemen -- that fostered his drinking problem.
"It was never said: 'If you know someone who drinks too much, let me know.' I had a first sergeant who was an alcoholic and another one, I always could find him at the club," he said.
Patterson, now a skydiving instructor in Ridgely, Md., said his life has been "a living hell" since the crash. "Every time I hear something on the radio about drunk driving, I've felt a prick right here," said the former Army specialist, jabbing the pit of his stomach.
While Patterson shares the feelings of many drunk drivers who each year cause more than half the nation's traffic fatalities -- last year 23,500 people died in alcohol-related accidents -- his accident also has produced a controversial ruling holding the Army responsible for the accident.
U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams held recently that the federal government was liable for the 1981 accident because Patterson became drunk at a service club at Arlington Hall Station where bartenders continued to serve him despite his obvious intoxication and the fact that he was 19 -- too young to buy hard liquor legally in Virginia. It was the first time the government was held liable for damages to victims of a serviceman's drunk- driving accident.
Williams directed the government to pay $945,000 to the relatives of the dead driver, Michael T. McDonnell, and he oversaw an out-of-court settlement in which the government paid $250,000 to relatives of the comatose victim, Maura L. Corrigan of Cleveland.
Patterson's accident, which occured while he was stationed at Fort Myer, also gave added pressure to the military's attempt to reverse decades-old attitudes toward the image and use of alcohol in the armed services. The word from the top is to "deglamorize the use of alcohol," said Lt. Col. John Myers, public affairs officer for the Military District of Washington, the command that oversees Army bases in the area.
Although Myers declined to link the changes to the Patterson case, he said: "No doubt, it has reinforced our efforts to take a good look at the environment in which alcohol plays a part."
Myers cited two major policy changes that went into effect nationwide Saturday as products of that new attitude. All military installations were ordered to conform to local laws on minimum drinking ages and all military clubs were directed to stop serving alcohol to service personnel during duty hours.
Many bases in the Washington suburbs -- including Fort Myer and Arlington Hall -- have or are seeking exemptions from the drinking age policy because of their proximity to the District where beer and wine are served to 18-year-olds. The requested exemptions have prompted strong criticism from some antidrunk-driving groups, who charge that the exemptions belie the military's determination to end problem drinking. Groups such as Northern Virginia's MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) said the policy will allow young service people to become intoxicated in base service clubs and then become involved in traffic accidents off the base.
Patterson, who left the Army in September and spent three months in jail after his manslaughter conviction, said he wishes a less tolerant attitude had been in effect in the Army before his accident.
"A drunk GI is not something an officer looks down on, as long as you do your job," he said, contrasting that to the military attitude toward illicit drugs. "You don't even want to talk about drugs on base, because they'll burn you," he said.
Patterson, who is from Baltimore, said the first time he tasted beer was after basic training in the summer of 1980. "I got toasted," he recalls.
Scoring high on aptitude tests, he was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for training as a Korean language interpreter. But his drinking increased and he refused to acknowledge he had a problem, he said. His academic performance dropped; he got into fights at bars and he injured himself when he fell out of a tree he climbed while drunk.
In March 1981 he drove his car into a tree while drunk and was charged with reckless driving. "I was looking for help," he said.
Despite Army regulations mandating it, he was not ordered into an alcohol counseling program. And when he transferred to Fort Myer in August 1981, his new commander was not informed of his drinking problem, as Army regulations require.
"Somehow I just slid under the wire," Patterson said. "After the accident they were doing everything they could for me; they put me in counseling, which helped a lot. If that had been done before the accident, there would be two more people walking the streets safely."
Patterson spoke about his experiences because "I feel some good would come out of it. I've tried hard to make it comfortable when I do it . . . . It's my guilt and conscience driving me. I don't want 'Pat Patterson' to become a name for another new disease. I'm just the one who became infamous -- that's all."
His notoriety sometimes strikes unexpectedly. Recently, while visiting a friend, a woman came up to him, pointed and said: "You're that Pat Patterson that had the accident!"
Patterson said he has an occasional beer but believes he has his drinking under control. "My conscience and guilt are stronger than my weakness towards alcohol, but I've come close to wanting to get drunk. I'm a recovering alcoholic, I think that's the term."
He agreed to pay $25,000 to the relatives of Corrigan under an agreement in which he would not be sued. But visions of the Ohio woman, still in a coma, haunt him.
"If they could just let me go in and see her so that they know their pain is shared . . . . I have more pain than they can comprehend," he said. "I want them to know I was not callous about it. Like I said, I'm infamous, so what's to say I'm a good person?"