Oklahoma Highway Patrol graduates first academy in three years

Saturday, December 17th 2005, 4:36 pm
By: News On 6

SPENCER, Okla. (AP) _ As he battled through 16 grueling weeks of physical, mental and emotional challenges, Benjamin Bertram never doubted he would be part of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Academy's first graduating class in three years.

``It feels great to finally get through this and achieve our dream,'' Bertram, of Bluejacket, said Friday as 49 new troopers donned the patrol's brown shirt and brass badge at graduation and commissioning ceremonies for the OHP's 55th Academy.

``It's the greatest feeling a man can ever have _ the best of the best,'' said new Trooper Justin Barney of Oklahoma City.

The troopers _ all men _ joined the statewide law enforcement force as the patrol works to lift its numbers to the authorized level of 839 troopers. Oklahoma had 782 state troopers before Friday's graduation.

The new troopers will only be enough to fill vacancies expected to occur due to retirement in 2006, Public Safety Commissioner Kevin Ward said. A total of 60 troopers are expected to retire within the next 12 months, including 44 in May alone, Ward said.

More than 800 applicants have submitted paperwork to enroll in the OHP's 56th Academy, which kicks off May 31.

A total of 65 cadets were chosen from about 800 applicants for the 55th Academy class. Sixteen cadets dropped out before graduation.

The new troopers will earn $2,750 a month during a one-year probationary period. Trooper salaries range from $36,711 to $50,087 a year.

Gov. Brad Henry said state troopers are ``the dividing line'' that separates law-abiding citizens from criminals.

``You all are really the best of the best,'' Henry said. ``You put your lives on the line day in and day out to protect Oklahomans.''

The governor also said troopers' decisions and actions in the line of duty reflect on their colleagues, other law enforcement agencies and the entire state.

``You are the face of Oklahoma law enforcement,'' he said. ``I have no doubt that you are up to the challenge.''

Trooper Heath Meyer of Noble, a former Baptist minister and member of the graduating class, summed up the academy experience for his fellow graduates and hundreds of current and retired troopers and family members who attended the ceremony.

``There was free time _ nestled in between never,'' Meyer said. ``We were being pushed. We were being pushed harder than we had ever been pushed in our lives.''

He said cadets became as close as family members during the process, united by their desire to become state troopers.

``This is one of the hardest things we've ever done. But at the same time it's one of the most rewarding things we've ever done,'' Meyer said. ``We are never to let our guard down. And, most importantly, we are to never, ever quit.''

During the ceremony, troopers honored the widow and family of Trooper Nikky Green, who was killed on a rural Cotton County road near Devol almost two years ago as he investigated a vehicle that authorities said was being used as a mobile methamphetamine lab.

Henry described Green as a ``model state trooper'' and said Green's is one of two funerals for troopers killed in the line of duty he has attended since he was sworn in in 2003.

``I hope and I pray that I never have to do that again,'' Henry said.