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By his own admission, Ryan Tapp is the prime example that "it can't happen to me."
Tapp, a 2006 Cheshire High School graduate, admits that he spent every weekend from his sophomore to his senior year getting drunk with friends in town. He often drove home drunk from whatever party he was at, putting himself and others at risk. In school, he did not apply himself, and "never bothered" to get more than a C.
Yet despite that, Tapp was serving in the Marines, eventually on his way to Iraq, a dream and goal he set for himself when he was just a boy. But that all changed forever at 3 a.m. on January 1, 2008. He would never fulfill his dream.
Tapp, who was 20 at the time, spent New Year's Eve partying at Central Connecticut State University. He decided to leave the party and come back to his parent's house in Cheshire. None of his friends even knew he had left.
Tapp, who was drunk, got onto Interstate 84 to head home. He was driving westbound towards Cheshire, on the eastbound side of the highway.
Tapp crashed his car into another vehicle head on so hard, the momentum threw his vehicle back into traffic, where he was again struck. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and was in a coma for three weeks. It took months of rehabilitation for Tapp to learn to walk, speak, and hold his head up straight. He also spent nine months in jail for his DUI arrest.
He always told himself nothing bad would happen, that it "wouldn't happen to me," but it did.
Tapp, who is now 24, spoke at Cheshire Town Hall on April 27, as a part of the Town's Alcohol Awareness Week, to spread the word about the dangers of drinking and driving.
"Doctors were amazed I survived the first week," Tapp recalled. "I had an angel watching over me."
Three others were injured as a result of the crash, but Tapp got it the worst, something he said he is happy about. His parents explained that, when he first woke up he asked what happened and then inquired about the other people involved. While the others were injured with broken bones and lacerations, it was not as severe as Tapp's injuries, which included brain bleeding and tremors.
"It took a long time to learn to tie my shoes again," he said.
Tapp said drinking and driving is "bad in Cheshire" because there is nothing for kids to do. He said "they party" and that's "just the way it is."
Tapp had his first drink in the 9th grade. By the 10th grade, he was getting drunk every weekend. He hopes to speak at health classes at Cheshire High School next month to tell students about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Tapp served three years in the Marine Corps Reserves before the accident. He was medically discharged afterwards and cannot serve. He also cannot do any task or job that could result in physical stress or head injuries,but has been able to retain his volunteer fire fighting gig.
Tapp showed some pictures that illustrate how quickly his life changed. In one photo, he is shown surrounded by friends, playing a drinking game on New Year's Eve. Hours later, the next photo shows him with tubes coming and going from his body while he was hooked up to machines in the hospital.
Videos provided by Tapp months after the accident show him with a physical therapist, teaching him to walk again. Another video shows a doctor rotating Tapp’s head in an effort to strengthen his neck so he could hold his head up. These are not distant memories to Tapp, because he doesn't even remember the accident or months of recovery. In fact, the weeks before the accident have also been wiped from his brain.
Tapp served nine months in jail and also had a Breathalyzer machine installed in his car by court order. He now has to blow into that machine to start his car in order to prove he is not over the legal limit. Additionally, he has to blow into it during a trip to prevent him from possibly starting the vehicle and then beginning to drink.
He has completed a 12 step program with Celebrate Recovery, a Christian recovery program and is enrolled in college. For a student who slacked off and still got a C, Tapp now is trying twice as hard as anyone else to get the same grade.
"I am still having a hard time," Tapp said.
Tapp's mother, Nancy, said parents are providing children in Cheshire with a "false sense of security" by allowing them to drink. Simply taking away their car keys and providing a house in which to drink is not only illegal, it sends the wrong message. Tapp's father, Randy, explained how the family does not drink and does not condone underage drinking. His house has a finished basement, with a pool table, arcade games and much more, a perfect hangout for teens, he said.
But, when his kids grew up they never wanted to hang out at home because they preferred to go to another home in Cheshire to get drunk. His son's accident could have been prevented if good choices were made, he insisted.
Nancy Tapp hoped parents in Cheshire would take a stand against this type of behavior.
"It starts with the parents. We need to take a stand," she said. "We can't enable them. Don't make it easy. This is not a rite of passage."
Ryan Tapp didn't have to speak at Town Hall, nor does he have to share his experiences with high school students now, but he wants to. He stated that, if only one person will heed his warnings, it will be worth it.
"I want to stop people from doing what I did," Tapp said. "I have a record now. I will never fully heal. To stop just one person would be a blessing."