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WARM SPRINGS – Joel Bartley couldn’t find the right CD in his pickup – the one with that Rodney Atkins song he liked, the one he and his two friends wanted to listen to.

Drunk, driving and distracted, Bartley checked first under his visor. Not there. His best friend leaned across the passenger seat to hold the wheel while Bartley looked under the seat. Not there, either.

None of the three in the truck thought to put on his seatbelt after leaving the bar in Roundup, about 50 miles north of Billings, the night of Jan. 12, 2007.

Bartley drank eight, maybe 10, beers and six or so shots before deciding to drive to a hot tub party in town.

“All of us were drinking to get drunk,” Bartley said.

A missed turn took the bunch east on U.S. 12. Bartley, now 24 and enrolled at Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change, also called the WATCh program, still thinks about that missed turn on a drive he’d made so many times.

Bartley went off the road that night, distracted and drunk and driving. His best friend died in the crash.

Bartley moved from Washington state to Montana at age 15. The drinking culture in the small town of Roundup stood out right away, he said.

“It seemed socially acceptable to drink underage,” Bartley said during a recent interview at WATCh, on the campus of the Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs.

Strong family support kept Bartley sober for a while. During that time, he met and fell in love with a girl he dated for four years, he said. Life was content and peaceful, Bartley said. But not exciting.

“I just felt like I was being left out.”

At parties, Bartley fell into bad habits. He said he thought he could have just one drink, at first. One became two, two became three and beyond.

“I knew in my heart and mind I was going to get drunk, loud and rowdy,” Bartley said. “That was my idea of a good time.”

Bartley was arrested on suspicion of DUI after the wreck and a trip to the hospital.

The sentence came down Aug. 14, 2008. Bartley received 10 years to the Department of Corrections, with five years suspended, for negligent homicide. He served 15 months in the state prison before coming to WATCh last October.

“The staff here goes above and beyond and truly cares about our sobriety,” Bartley said.

He will spend six months at WATCh. After graduating, he will spend another six months at the Billings Pre-release Center and then parole.

Bartley is in the “Knights” program at WATCh, formed in 2007 to specifically treat DUI offenders with a negligent homicide conviction. According to a DUI fact sheet released in August by the Montana Department of Corrections’ Law and Justice Committee, nine of the 14 offenders admitted to the “Knights” program at WATCh since 2007 have finished it, while the remaining five are still enrolled.

WATCh Knights work to shed the layers of “armor” they put up to deal with what they have done.

“We don’t want to hurt anymore, so we put up all this armor to not feel any more pain,” Bartley said. “This has been a wonderful opportunity to take a look at my life and my alcoholism.”

As a Knight, Bartley said he is overcoming self-pity and loathing. He is dedicated to sobriety. He is dedicated to positive change.

Montana Standard reporter George Plaven may be reached at george.plaven@lee.net.

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