Former Dallas firefighter who battled alcoholism finds new calling helping others
Austin Campbell grew up around the firehouse. For as long as he can remember, he wanted to follow his dad’s footsteps and join the ranks of Dallas’ firefighters.
He achieved that dream, becoming a Dallas firefighter at station 37.
“Everything that I ever wanted or any goals that I had in life, I had achieved them,” said Campbell, 27.
But Austin had a problem. He drank to escape the pressures of the job.
“I just couldn't stand being sober and in a right mind because there were so many things that I was remembering or thinking about that was trauma, that I’d seen or gone through,” he said.
In two years, back-to-back DWIs cost him his job first with Dallas and then with Kennedale.
“Even knowing that I was going to lose my dream career and my family begging me to stop, none of that was enough,” said Campbell, who now works as a recovery advocate for Stonegate Center, a treatment center for men in Azle.
It’s a problem prevalent in the fire service.
Alcohol abuse among firefighters is roughly two to three times that of the general population. One in five firefighters experiences PTSD, double the rate of the general population.
“Those are the guys that you call for help,” said Will Stoy, executive director of the center. “Those are the ones that are there for rescue you. They can’t show weakness. They can’t be hurt. They can’t need help because if they need help, how are they going to help others?”
Stoy is the son of a Dallas firefighter. His wife’s father and grandfather were also Dallas firefighters.
“Growing up I knew my dad, just listening to him, I knew he had seen a lot of things,” he said.
After the recent suicide of a Dallas firefighter, Stonegate reached out to the Dallas Fire Fighters Association offering to help. They are working to tailor a program for firefighters battling addiction.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is having a resource of our members,” said Jim McDade’s, the association’s president. “It’s perfect for some of our members to have somebody who speaks firefighter and understands what we go through.”
The recent suicide of the firefighter hits home for Campbell.
He knew the firefighter, although not well. The firefighter killed himself hours after failing a breathalyzer. The firefighter had gotten a DWI earlier this year. He likely would have been fired.
“That was me,” Campbell said. “That was absolutely me.”
He knows his story could have ended the same way.
“There was a time especially when I got fired for good that I thought I absolutely thought about that maybe my only way, maybe my only way of relief is suicide,” Campbell said.
Campbell worked for Kennedale for two years before joining Dallas Fire-Rescue in 2012. He’d been on the department nine months when he got his first DWI. He was still in his probationary period, so he knew he was going to be fired.
“I still remember coming out of the office, and there was my dad,” he said, “and he put his arm around me, and we walked to the parking lot, and of course he was pretty upset, as well and he told me, ‘It’s going to be ok, son. We’re going to get through it.’”
Campbell got a second chance. Kennedale rehired him. He said they tried to help him, but he wasn’t ready to acknowledge he had a problem.
A little more than a year after returning to Kennedale, he got another DWI. It cost him his job.
“I sunk into a deep, dark depression because now I had an identity crisis, ‘If I’m not a firefighter and a paramedic, then who am I?” he said.
Months later, he checked himself into an inpatient treatment center. He credits the grace of God with seeing him through.
He began a working as a recovery advocate about a year ago. He joined the staff of Stonegate three months ago. Much of his job involves counseling men one-on-one.
With its back-to-nature feel, the center looks more like a ranch than a treatment facility, and that’s on purpose. A treatment facility for women will open early next year.
In many ways, Stonegate operates like a firehouse except there are no emergency runs.
“They all pitch in on chores and help each other out in close quarters and help each other out and live in close quarters just like a firehouse,” Campbell said. “It creates a healthy bonding atmosphere and it creates teamwork to get through this same affliction.”
Austin is eager to help other firefighters struggling with addiction.
“One of my hang-ups whenever I went into treatment is ‘How could any of you understand me? You haven’t been through what I’ve been through or seen what I’ve been through?'” he said, “I can sit down with them and tell them, ‘Hey brother, I understand. I get it. I’ve been there.’”
The hope is that Austin’s example can break the stigma.
“He’s living proof that they’re not beyond help,” Stoy said. “He’s living proof that they’re not so unique, that they’re just designed to a life of misery in a bottle. He takes those excuses away.”
Austin’s old calling still beckons. He still longs to return to the firehouse. “It’s still somewhat my dream,” he said.
Austin knows the odds are long. He’s off probation for the first time in five years.
“If it’s God will and if he calls me to that again, I would absolutely thrilled to go back into it,” he said.
For now, he’s finding redemption helping others recover.
“What drives me is to pay back and freely give to the next man what was so freely given to me,” he said.