Ray Duckler: Honoring those dedicated to helping others
The two figures stood 20 feet apart in the middle of dimly lit Route 4, snow blowing, nerves tight, violence looming.
The woman, mentally ill, had a knife; the state trooper was armed with his gun and training he hoped would snuff the fuse before it reached the powder keg.
“I realized this was not an intoxicated person,” said Trooper Sean Sweeney, formerly Boscawen’s police chief. “I realized it was a woman with some mental issues. Rather than using a strong authoritative voice and yelling, I opened a dialogue and just started talking to her.”
In the end, the woman understood Sweeney, absorbing what he had to say. She dropped the knife and got a ride from the trooper, near 3 in the morning, to the hospital for medical attention.
That’s why the New Hampshire State Police honored Sweeney, among dozens of others, last week during a ceremony at the state police academy in Concord. Gov. Maggie Hassan thanked the troopers for their service, and Col. Robert Quinn read the names and deeds of those honored.
Within days, some of their colleagues would be involved in a chase from Bow to Manchester that ended with a trooper shooting and killing the runaway driver – a reminder of the dangers, stakes and controversies that are part of their work.
On this day, though, the focus was on saving lives, and the men and women involved.
“The most dedicated police force in the country,” Quinn said. “Thank you for putting your lives on the line every day.”
Six rows of state troopers sat on folded chairs as Quinn called individuals and groups up front. Six rows of dark-green uniforms, of yellow patches, of white gloves, of trooper hats with circular brims, flat enough to hold a cup of coffee.
There was an honor guard, a bagpipe player, a crowd of proud family members, many with strollers and children too young to appreciate what was happening.
Quinn thanked his men and women for their heroic behavior. He thanked the 10 troopers who volunteered to help victims of superstorm Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where structure and hope had been carried away by huge waves.
He thanked them for collecting evidence to catch killers, for aiding victims of domestic abuse, for freeing hostages, for stopping crime networks that had succeeded in stealing more than $100,000 worth of merchandise.
One trooper was honored for combining detective work with compassion while speaking to a victim of felonious sexual assault.
“He made the woman feel safe and comfortable,” Quinn said. “He gathered the information necessary to incarcerate her boyfriend.”
Retrieving names and anecdotes from troopers is never easy. They prefer to work in anonymity, their backgrounds and achievements often hidden from view, covered like their eyes beneath their hats. Troopers know that their professional histories and the decisions they make, sometimes reached in a flash, with only their instincts to guide them, could become everyone’s business.
Plead and push, however, and you may get something. Like the story involving Trooper Timothy Stearns of New Hampton, once a mechanic before pursuing his dream of law enforcement.
Now a 16-year veteran of the state police, Stearns was honored for saving the life of an elderly man who’d lost his way during a hike in the woods near Durham.
The man, 82 at the time, had suffered a mild heart attack in December 2011, with darkness falling and temperatures dropping into the 20s.
Search teams failed to find the man that first night.
The next morning, Stearns joined the search with helicopter pilot Mark Johnson. The team had a hunch.
“They tried locating him in an area where his car was, but they didn’t find him,” said Stearns, barrel-chested and tall. “They had already searched in that area, and there were people on the ground already searching that area. At this point they had been searching for hours, so we decided to broaden the search out a little bit.”
They flew to another region, a mile, maybe two from the search team’s starting point.
Before long, Stearns saw a blue streak through the dead branches, then quickly noticed that they were blue jeans. The chopper hovered and the old man waved.
“I reached out the window and waved back so he knew I had seen him,” Stearns said. “I got chills up and down my spine. Talking about it now, I’m getting chills up and down my spine. It was just a great feeling that we saved this guy. An awesome feeling.”
The man had lost a boot and suffered hypothermia and frostbite.
“Had we not found him,” Stearns said, “he would have died.”
The woman in Andover on that other cold, snowy night might have died as well. But Sweeney stayed cool.
The dispatcher radioed troopers sometime after 2 a.m. Sweeney responded to the call, something about a woman in the middle of the street.
“I got out there and it was still actively snowing, and it was clear this young lady had been in the roadway for a while,” Sweeney said. “Her pants were wet and she had some snow on her. She was shivering.”
Sweeney didn’t know much else. Not with the snow swirling. Not in the middle of the night.
The two faced each other. A light from the nearby fire station and a streetlight in front of Pizza Chef added an eerie glow.
Sweeney didn’t see the knife. Not at first, anyway.
“I didn’t know if it was an intoxicated person in the middle of the street, or someone who had crashed their car and was looking for help,” Sweeney said. “At some point during our communications, she made an advance on me.”
He saw the knife. He saw the woman running toward him. He had to decide his next move, fast.
“I didn’t feel at that point that taking her life was going to be something that needed to happen,” Sweeney said. “I used a strong verbal presence to at least get her to stop her aggression toward me, which she did.”
Sweeney radioed for help, at which time the woman ran from him. He told her to stop. She then cut her throat – not severely, but enough to draw blood – and disappeared behind a building, off into the woods, Sweeney in pursuit.
“I introduced myself,” Sweeney said. “I coaxed her to throw her weapon into the snow. That’s when I took her into custody.”
And that’s why Sweeney was honored.
The ceremony lasted 1½ hours. Some troopers were handed certificates; others were given medals, draped around their necks as though they had won an Olympic title.
“It’s a huge honor,” Sweeney said. “But it’s also very humbling, because it’s a reminder of what can happen out there.”