S.C. Highway Patrol Capt. Tara Laffin remembers the moment she chose a career in law enforcement.
It was her senior year at Lander University and she was driving eastbound on Interstate 20 near Camden when she passed a crash. A man and a woman were being readied for medical transport and a trooper was holding their small child.
"From that point on, I never looked back," Laffin said. "I wanted to be able to help others who couldn't help themselves."
After 22 years with the agency, Laffin was promoted to captain on May 5. She is the first female to hold the rank in state Highway Patrol history and will command the agency's training unit, succeeding Capt. E.J. Talbot, who retired after more than 27 years.
"Being promoted to captain is an honor," Laffin said. "Being the first female is just an addition to that. In general, I think there's unlimited opportunity for women or for anybody."
The promotion marks a return to a unit where she served from 2007 to 2011 as a corporal and later as a sergeant, Laffin said. It's also an opportunity to make an impact on recruits at the beginning of their careers as well as veteran troopers looking to further their skills.
"We have an outstanding training unit," she said. "(I want) to have the best training and equipment in the nation."
Laffin, now 46 and a resident of Lexington County, is a native of Middletown, N.Y. She attended Lander on a softball scholarship, graduated with a degree in sociology and worked at a youth residential treatment center in Dillon for about a year before starting the Highway Patrol academy.
After completing her training in 1994, she worked as a trooper in Dillon County before moving to Kershaw and Richland counties, according to the agency. She later served as a corporal in Lexington County before moving to the training unit. Laffin most recently served as a lieutenant in the emergency management unit, which provides traffic planning and response to hurricanes and other disasters.
The early days on the job required some quick adjustments, Laffin said.
"Coming from New York, it was a little bit of a culture shock, but I fit in really quickly there," she said.
Troopers became like family, Laffin said. Colleagues would look after each other and her training officer even took her in for holidays when family could not come down from New York.
"I was a single parent for much of my career," she said. "When my son was young, other troopers would (help out). You had that family network. I'd be able to lean on someone to assist me."
Capt. Robert Woods, commander of the Highway Patrol's emergency traffic management unit, was Laffin's supervisor for the past few years, and an instructor in the training unit when she first joined the agency.
"Tara is just the quintessential example of hard work and perseverance," Woods said. "It's consistency. There is not a time where I felt that I could not depend on (her)."
Her work ethic combined with her progressive, open mindset and communication skills make her the perfect choice to lead the agency's training unit, he said.
Laffin is a graduate of the FBI Command College, S.C. Certified Public Manager Program, S.C. Master Instructor and FEMA Train-the-Trainer programs, according to the Highway Patrol. She is also a certified firearms, concealed weapons and driving instructor.
"She's worked very hard to prepare herself," Woods said.
Laffin is one of many women in leadership positions within the Highway Patrol, he said, adding that he believes more will follow if they follow her example.
"If an example can be set, Tara would be the example to follow," Woods said.
As Laffin reflects on her promotion, she doesn't forget her roots as a patrol trooper. Calls for service from that time continue to motivate her, such as one from 2004 when she was stationed in Richland County.
It was pouring rain when she arrived at the scene of a crash at Two Notch Road and Decker Boulevard just outside of Columbia, she said. A small child latched onto her pant leg and wouldn't let go. The child kept repeating something in Spanish.
"Finally the mom said, 'Do you know what she keeps calling you? Her guardian angel'," Laffin said.