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Airman’s heartbreaking story drives home importance of traffic safety

Master Sgt. Paul Hinen, Nevada Air National Guard recruiting and retention manager, presents a traffic safety course at Reno High on July 14. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Emerson Marcus

Master Sgt. Paul Hinen, Nevada Air National Guard recruiting and retention manager, presents a traffic safety course at Reno High on July 14. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Emerson Marcus

CARSON CITY -- It's a lecture that evokes tears when a photo of a gravestone reveals the names of the couple killed.

In his driver safety lecture, "One Violation from Tragedy," Nevada Air National Guard Master Sgt. Paul Hinen discusses how small traffic violations can lead to disastrous consequences -- what he calls the "ripple effect" -- before he examines in detail the circumstances of a 1997 vehicle wreck that killed a retired couple driving westbound on Highway 12 south of Olympia, Wash.

After a Winnebago abruptly stopped on the two-lane road, a trailing logging truck driving eastbound swerved left to avoid the immediate collision and smashed head-on into an oncoming Dodge Caravan.

Hinen's father, Norman Hinen, and his step mother, Alicia Hinen, were in the Dodge Caravan.

Hinen, recruiting and retention manager for the Nevada Air National Guard, has presented the traffic safety course more than 30 times this year for more than 1,500 people, including several hundred airmen at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno during the annual Wingman Day safety lecture on July 9 and 10.

Each presentation, Hinen holds back his personal connection to the two killed until the very end of the presentation.

He uses first names, introducing his father, "Norman," an avid marathon runner and Vietnam War veteran who "wanted to live until he was 100"; his step mother, "Alicia," an "outstanding cook and craftswoman."

Hinen does not hold back detail on the car crash that took his father and step mother's life -- using photos of his father stooped lifeless against the steering wheel, "his blood filling his chest cavity...the cause of death a separated coronary artery."

Hinen's audience discovers his connection to Norman and Alicia at the end of the presentation when he plays a photo slideshow that shows their gravestone and a picture of himself wearing his NHP uniform next to his father and step mother.

"I always get positive feedback," Hinen said of his presentation. "Some people go into condolence mood. It's not about getting sympathy. It's about changing people's behavior. It's about getting people to think about their driving habits. I try to take my loss and turn it into something positive."

It started in 1998, the year after the crash, when Hinen developed the presentation for a speech class he took at Great Basin Community College. He turned that into a lecture for the Highway Patrol's training academy on the importance of enforcing traffic safety laws.

"It started to evolve after I began doing more public presentations as a highway patrol traffic commander in Lovelock and Winnemucca," said Hinen, who served in NHP from 1987-2006.

Hinen enlisted in the Nevada Air Guard in 1983, serving many years as a traditional guardsman reporting one weekend a month and two weeks a year for annual training. He continues doing the lectures today as part of his community outreach as a recruiter and to promote driver safety.

"Being a driver's ed(ucation) teacher and showing videos for 20 years, you get sort of immune to it," Washoe County driver's education instructor Nick Jannis said. "You see images so many times -- crashes, people dying, you just hope the kids get it. But Paul's story really brought it home. It's not just somebody else. It's something everyone can relate to...Some of the students, they have tears in their eyes after the presentation."

When Hinen first presented the lecture at Reno High, he didn't even tell Jannis that the story involved the death of his father and step mother.

"It's very powerful. I don't know how he does it," Jannis said. "I'm emotional. I knew it was coming the second time, and it was still very emotional. It's a story you don't want to tell, but the kids need to hear."

During the presentation at the base during drill weekend in July, people who've worked with Hinen in the Nevada Air Guard for decades had never heard the story.

"I try really hard not to give away the ending," Hinen said. "I also try not to get too emotional. That is pretty difficult.  I normally have another slide available at the end of the presentation that I only use if I need it.  If I get to where I break down emotionally and can't talk anymore, the slide summarizes my closing comments and says everything I would say at the end."

For Hinen, it's an almost therapeutic way to continue a legacy for his parents through the promotion of safe driving.

"Troopers have told me that the presentation impacted their career at highway patrol," Hinen said. "Many other people tell me how it made them focus more on the road. From a traffic safety standpoint, that's how we impact people's lives."