Nineteen young men and one woman became state troopers on Saturday during a ceremony in Cary that had been postponed a day so it wouldn’t conflict with the funeral of a three-year veteran of the Highway Patrol who died earlier in the week.
Trooper Samuel Newton Bullard, 24, was buried near his home in the little town of Ronda, along the Yadkin River, on Friday, four days after he was killed giving chase to a car that had gone through a checkpoint without stopping.
Bullard was remembered with a moment of silence Saturday morning during the graduation of the 144th Basic Patrol School in the chapel at Colonial Baptist Church. His death lent some solemnity to what was a celebration, a reminder to the 20 graduates that they’ve chosen a profession that can be dangerous. In the last 20 years, 11 troopers have died while doing their jobs, all but two of them in crashes.
"Certainly the situation with Trooper Bullard is a fresh reminder that there are no promises for any of us for tomorrow," Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby told the graduates just before swearing them in as state troopers. "Be sure you're right with God every day as you go about to do justice and embrace kindness."
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Like Newby, the Highway Patrol's commander, Col. G.M. McNeill Jr., urged the graduates to be humble with the authority they were about to be given.
"The badge that you have earned the right to wear — this Highway Patrol uniform that you have earned the right to wear — signifies that you are willing to serve North Carolina with excellence and serve as its ambassador," McNeill said. "As we celebrate your graduation, go forward and employ good judgment, civility, humility and ethics."
The ceremony followed 15 weeks of training, and there were several references to the physical and mental demands. The commandant for the class, First Sgt. J. W. Bright Jr., said he told the cadets on the first day in February to surrender to the training and surrender to the staff.
"They were in good hands," Bright told the audience of family and friends, "regardless of what they might have told you."
After the newly minted troopers followed the Wake & District bagpipe and drum band out of the chapel, they went out to the parking lot to find a row of 20 new Dodge Charger State Highway Patrol cars, each with a name on it. In the trunks, they found their belts, guns and other equipment and put on their wide-brimmed campaign hats for the first time.
Trooper John Bales, 31, has been a police officer since he was 24 but said he was drawn to the professionalism and family atmosphere of the Highway Patrol. There are few professions like it, Bales said, where you get to help someone every day. Bullard's death was a caution to the graduates of the dangers of the job, he said, "but we stay the course."
Bullard was chasing a car that fled a driver's license checkpoint on Interstate 77 in Surry County when he apparently lost control and hit a bridge support. The Highway Patrol says the driver of the car, Dakota Kape Whitt, 22, of Elkin, was later arrested and charged with murder, felony fleeing to elude arrest in a motor vehicle and driving with a revoked license.