NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - As the group gathered near the brightly-colored Christmas tree, New Hanover County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Clemens remembered his father, George. The emotional "Tree of Life" ceremony is a reminder to other members of law enforcement of how important it is to stop impaired drivers.
More than 400 people in North Carolina died in 2008 because of crashes involving drunk drivers. Deputy Clemens says he is just one of the many victims who are affected by others' poor choices. He hopes by speaking out, he can prevent other families from suffering the same pain.
"The man had just left a New Year's party and was drinking heavily," the deputy told the crowd. "He entered the intersection against a flashing red light, and crashed his SUV into my father's sedan."
It's still a difficult story to tell for Deputy Clemens, even after five years. His father, also a sheriff's deputy, was off-duty when the crash happened. He died two weeks later.
"Not only does it affect anyone that is out and about on the roadways," Deputy Clemens continued, "it can even affect those of us who are trying to stop it."
Deputy Clemens and other officers help remember victims of drunk driving at this ceremony every December. The tree has almost two thousand lights, one for each person killed on North Carolina's roads last year. While he reflects on his father's life, Deputy Clemens also hopes to inspire others who wear the badge.
"I hope they took away a sense of purpose for the law enforcement officers to continue to do what they're doing," he said. "It's not an unsung type act that they do. People do appreciate it. They see it every day. Even those of us that are doing it with them appreciate what they're doing out there."
His words are a bright spot of hope and encouragement in the wake of such a terrible family tragedy.