Three Tennessee state troopers are visiting area high schools hoping to get through to young people with a message about safety and the importance of making good decisions.
Troopers Barry Qualls, Jason Thompson and Michael Marvin will be going to all the high schools in Bedford, Lincoln and Moore counties over the next few weeks. They kicked off the program Thursday at Community High School in Unionville, where they met with freshmen and seniors.
The troopers' talks were not, as one might expect, about the legal ramifications of bad decisions such as drunk driving, texting while driving or failure to use seat belts. All three troopers have experienced the effects of such behavior not only on a daily basis in their professional lives but also in their private lives.
"We're here to have a conversation, not put on a show," Thompson said. "Seventy-five percent of you pretty much think we're jerks and that's OK. We're here to show you that we're real people, with real families and we face real tragedies."
"It happens every day," he said.
Horror hits home
For Thompson, tragedy struck on a school day in 2004.
His 16-year-old daughter was "running late" for school and didn't pause for the couple of seconds it would have taken to fasten her seat belt. As she rounded a corner, he said, her vehicle left the road and she went off a bridge. She was thrown across the car and hit her head. She was unconscious when emergency assistance arrived.
While en route to the hospital, a car ran a red light in Columbia and hit the ambulance Thompson's daughter was in. The ambulance rolled onto its side. Thompson was following the ambulance. "There's my daughter lying on the stretcher with the (ambulance) door open," he said. She was airlifted from the second accident to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville.
It was at the hospital that Thompson hit a low point with a feeling of helplessness. A doctor asked him to step into a small side room. "When a doctor wants to talk to you in a little room, it's not good," he said.
The doctor told Thompson that his daughter's chances for recovery were uncertain, that she had suffered severe head trauma.
"State troopers love to be in control," Thompson said. "That's how we handle things. At that point I was not in control. I started crying. I thought I was going to lose her."
For two weeks his daughter remained unconscious. She did finally come around but full recovery took three or four years, he said. "You know what would have eliminated the whole problem? If she had just fastened her seat belt. It takes just two seconds to fasten your seat belt."
Thompson said that he's strict when enforcing traffic laws in part because of his personal experience in almost losing his daughter. "I don't hate you," he said. "I'd do anything in the world for you."