Clemons...

West Virginia State Police Sgt. Melissa Clemons greets long-time friends at the door during her retirement party at Buffalo Trail Restaurant

PRINCETON — After 25 years on the job, one of the region’s first female West Virginia State Troopers is retiring.

Sgt. Melissa Clemons of Princeton, who heads the State Police Crimes Against Children Unit serving Southern West Virginia, is hanging up her badge.

A retirement party was held for her Thursday evening at Buffalo Trails in Bluewell, as colleagues, friends and family gathered to show their appreciation for her work, and for her character.

The retirement is a bittersweet experience, she said, one that she was ready for but also one that is tough and comes with many things and people she will miss.

“I love the West Virginia State Police,” she said. “That is who I am and who I have been for 25 years. I will miss that camaraderie.”

Clemons describes being a State Trooper as being part of a family.

“You depend on them,” she said of her fellow officers. “So much goes into the State Police family. I have been a trooper since I was 22. We were taught we are a family and we take care of each other.”

She will also miss working with other professionals as well as residents.

“I will miss being in the community and talking to people, serving the community,” she said, “I will miss that working relationship with the court system and schools … the staff at Child Protect.”

Clemons’ office has been at Child Protect on New Hope Road since she was put in charge of the Crimes Against Children Unit in 2010, a job she had not planned on doing, but things fell into place for it.

In fact, when the 1989 Princeton High School graduate was a student at Bluefield State College studying criminal justice, her career goal was to be a juvenile probation officer.

But with family members in law enforcement and an instructor, Maj. William Aldridge, at BSC who inspired her, she decided after graduating in 1993 to apply for the State Police Academy.

However, she knew it was a tall order just to be accepted.

“There were 2,000 who tested for 51 positions,” she said, and that included several days of testing. She, along with two other females, were accepted and the academy started in January 1994.

After graduating in August 1994 she was assigned to Raleigh County, headquartered in Beckley. That first assignment provided a stark introduction of what she was facing.

“An old salty trooper told me, ‘This is a man’s county, so be ready.’” Within a year, she had been hit in the face and bitten three times. She was also part of an officer-involved.

“I’ve had a few black eyes,” she said, but she learned she had to approach her job as any of her fellow troopers would and do what had to be done. “There is a misconception that people won’t hit a law enforcement officer. But they don’t hesitate to hit you … and whatever a male officer has to do, a female officer has to do.”

Clemons was transferred to the Princeton Detachment in 1998, one of only two female troopers in Southern West Virginia.

She was promoted to sergeant and also served as the assistant detachment commander as well as being appointed as the State Police representative on the Multi-Disciplinary Investigative Team (MDIT).

One of the great things about being a trooper, she said, is that they handle all sorts of crimes, from traffic violations to murder.

“If you respond (to a call), it’s yours,” she said. “I enjoyed that and I had the opportunity to work every type of crime you can work.”

She also learned that putting on a uniform is about more than crime, and as a State Trooper she always would help in any way she could.

“You take an oath to serve and protect,” she said. “That may mean serving on many different fronts. Maybe a person needs a coat or referred for help with something.”

That vast experience as well as the chance through MDIT to work with many other agencies and professionals help set the stage to make the move in 2010 after the state Legislature established the Crimes Against Children Unit in 2006 to investigate and help prosecute criminal child abuse and neglect cases.

“I asked to be transferred,” she said, adding she was happy when she learned it would be more of a “hands-on” position, not one of just being a liaison.

The decision was also made to establish an office for her at Child Protect rather than in the detachment because of the better atmosphere to work with children and families as well as being in close proximity with the staff there.

Covering a nine-county area with her colleague, First Sgt. David Horrocks in the Beckley Detachment, she has worked with prosecutors in all areas.

The experience has also given her another perspective on the importance of her job.

“Every victim (of a crime) is important,” she said, “but these are children who can’t stand up for themselves.”

Children were with people who should have protected them, but didn’t. “You have the ability to step in and take that role of protection … make that child feel safe, let that child know there is somebody out there who cares about them.”

That’s a part of what she does that will be missed. “It gives you satisfaction that you are in that role and I’m going to miss that,” she said.

She also came at a time when child abuse and neglect cases seemed to rise, at least in part because of the opioid abuse crisis and the public awareness that leads to people reporting it.

“We educate our community,” she said, adding that Child Protect is very active in schools with education, including a class for teachers on detecting and handling suspected child sexual abuse cases.

Shiloh Woodard, executive director of Child Protect, agreed that Clemons came at a good time, and the combination of the results of increased drug abuse that sent many children to foster homes and an ongoing effort for public awareness contributed to the increase in cases.

For Child Protect, Clemons was a “game changer.”

“She forever changed our organization,” Woodard said, explaining that having Clemons on site created a better effectiveness of handling cases, gathering information faster and working with all concerned on the spot.

“For us at Child Protect, it raised the bar for how we operated to have a law enforcement officer on site,” she said. “It vastly improved how effective we are … it streamlined the whole process.”

Woodard said Clemons will be missed.

“We have been so fortunate to have her in Mercer County,” she said, and her absence will leave a “vacuum” for the agency.

State Police Sgt. A.P. Christian also used the term “vacuum” to describe the impact of Clemons’ retirement.

“She’s a great trooper,” he said. “I have known her since junior high school.”

Christian said she never hesitated to do what she needed to do and has always been an asset to the detachment.

“It’s going to be hard to fill her shoes,” he said.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kelli Harshbarger has known and worked with Clemons for a long time.

“I have really been blessed to work with her for years,” she said. “This is going to be a loss for all of us.”

But, she added, it’s a retirement that is “well deserved.”

Samantha Perry, editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, has also worked with Clemons for years.

“Melissa has spent her career attempting to right the wrongs of this world.” she said. “And, sadly, many of her victims have been the most innocent. I cannot imagine how she faced these horrors and crimes day after day.”

Perry said Clemons is “certainly one of the strongest and most dedicated individuals I know.”

“Although I will miss working with my friend, I wish Melissa well in her retirement,” she said. “No one deserves it more.”

Bill Archer, Mercer County Commissioner and former reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, saw Clemons’ toughness the first time he met her.

He was covering a car crash on Falls Mills Road and Clemons was working it.

The driver was drinking and “belligerent,” he said, not easy to deal with.

“I was astounded by how she handled that scene,” he said.

Clemons is admired by all other officers, he said, and has “excelled” in everything she has done, including working in the court system.

“She is remarkable,” he said.

Clemons said she has not yet decided what she is going to do, other than spending more time with her 15-year-old son, her “best friend,” who told her she will not be “Lethal Weapon” any more and have to stop “kicking in doors.”

She also has two grown children, another son who is a student at WVU and a daughter who lives in Roanoke.

Clemons said it will be nice not to basically be on call all the time, knowing she could be called for duty in the middle of the night.

The job also creates a great deal of stress. “You have to put it aside while you are working,” she said, and it may hit you later, but not when you are doing a job.

Regardless of which direction her life takes now, the 25 years as a State Trooper will always be at her heart.

“How truly blessed I have been to be able to have this career and finish the race,” she said. “It’s been an honor to wear this uniform and serve this community.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com