Storytellers: Col. Thomas Torkelson

Base Info
U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Torkelson, 18th Wing vice commander, shares his story about a personal battle at the USO on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Sept. 17, 2014. The Storytellers event allowed members from Team Kadena to share their personal stories of how they withstood, recovered and grew in the face adversity. The goal is to present real-world tangible examples of resiliency and how support is beneficial in defeating adversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Naoto Anazawa/Released)
U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Torkelson, 18th Wing vice commander, shares his story about a personal battle at the USO on Kadena Air Base, Japan, Sept. 17, 2014. The Storytellers event allowed members from Team Kadena to share their personal stories of how they withstood, recovered and grew in the face adversity. The goal is to present real-world tangible examples of resiliency and how support is beneficial in defeating adversity. (U.S. Air Force photo by Naoto Anazawa/Released)

Storytellers: Col. Thomas Torkelson

by: Airman 1st Class Keith James, 18th Wing Public Affairs | .
Kadena Air Base | .
published: October 24, 2014

KADENA BASE, Japan -- When the 18th Wing's vice commander talks about resiliency, he uses his own experiences to illustrate the conversation.

Col. Thomas Torkelson shared his personal story of battling alcoholism with Team Kadena's Airmen during a recent Storytellers gathering.

Torkelson began drinking excessively when he entered high school, to the point of making questionable decisions with his own safety, as well as that of others.

"I never felt overt peer pressure to drink--I had grown up with it within my own home, and I felt alcohol made me funnier, popular, and accepted," Torkelson said.

The pattern continued after Torkelson graduated high school and entered the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"I looked forward to the next party, the next opportunity to drink, and if alcohol wasn't involved in the event, I wasn't interested," he said.

Torkelson didn't slow down, even after meeting Debbie, his bride-to-be.

"I could tell she wasn't really into my lifestyle," he said. "But maybe she saw something in me I did not see in myself, and knew I had potential to do better."

When he entered pilot training, he said he found a culture that embraced drinking, and he knew he would fit in.

"I was thriving, becoming accepted and known for how much I could drink," he said.
He continued partying even after he and Debbie got married.

During their first tour to Kadena Air Base, then-2nd Lt. Torkelson excelled as a tanker pilot with the 909th Air Refueling Squadron. He was popular among his peers, and largely because of his ability to drink.

Temporary duty across the Pacific region was common, and he established a habit of drinking to excess. Torkelson found that his professional existence was starting to become defined by his off-duty popularity. He also started making mistakes.

"I missed show times for flights due to oversleeping, roommates had to clean up after me in hotel rooms, and I said and did things under the influence that hurt and offended those around me," said Torkelson.

Around this time, he received a humanitarian assignment to Langley AFB, Va., to be closer to his mother, who was losing her own battle with cancer.

"She taught us all how to die with dignity, and as a devout Christian, she always took her sickness in stride and used it to tell her own story to people she wouldn't have met otherwise," he said. "She was the person I turned to when things were bad, and now she was gone."

With the death of his mother, Torkelson, 26, began to drink more at home and emotionally hurt the people he loved most. "I was to the point where I could be considered a functioning alcoholic," he said.

Torkelson's wife knew his drinking was a serious issue, and began to express concern.

Even parenthood didn't change his drinking habits. He continued partying as the couple had three children in five years. "I knew I was living a reckless lifestyle; I was jeopardizing my career, my marriage, and my family," he said.

Eventually, he began to question his legacy. His mother's death made him ask several questions. What do I want to be known for when I'm gone? What do I want people, my kids, my wife to say about me? What would make them proud?

He struggled with the idea of wanting to change, but not knowing how to do it.
In 2004, he received the opportunity to attend the USAF Weapons School as a newly pinned major at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

After yet another night out in nearby Las Vegas, with a brutal hangover, Torkelson found himself in the base chapel on one early Sunday. The chaplain's sermon involved her own battle with alcoholism, and how a recommitment to her faith helped her through her struggle.  The chaplain had intended to speak on another topic that Sunday, but felt compelled to share her own story instead.

"It was like she was speaking to me directly," said Torkelson. "The whole room kind of vanished, and it was like her and God were talking to me."

Torkelson told the chaplain after the service that he felt he was the reason she delivered the sermon that day, and promised to change.

Sharing his recommitment with his classmates back at weapons school, Torkelson asked for their encouragement and support on his decision to quit drinking. He said his classmates accepted his decision, and provided him the support he needed. He said he could have never done it without their help, and without his recommitment to his religious beliefs.

Torkelson gave up alcohol on Jan. 10, 2004, that day in the chapel, taking it one day at a time with help from his faith, his family, and his friends. He said he now can clearly focus on what he wants his legacy to be by striving to be an officer who encourages others to raise their game instead of being the guy who drags others down.

He said spiritual grace saved him, his family and his Air Force career, and freed him of the destructive path he was on.

"I don't think it's coincidental that my professional accomplishments have expanded tremendously in my 10 years of sobriety," he said. "I am a better Airman now."