Seeing the tattoo on his brother’s neck brought reality crashing down on him. Initial confusion was replaced with all-consuming grief – and that tortured Josh Vandegrift for the next six months.
Vandegrift, a firefighter paramedic for the City of Cocoa, was working at Station No. 1 on July 30, 2016. His normal work day usually began at Station No. 2, but on this day, another station was understaffed so he was transferred.
When the first call of the day came in, Vandegrift jumped into the back of Tower 31 and barely had time to think before they arrived on scene. The accident had happened only 100 yards away. A pedestrian had been hit by a van at the intersection across the street.
He was the first to jump out of the truck. The first to part the crowd that had formed. The first to look down at the man who would not live beyond the night.
The accident happened just yards from the fire station. Hit play to take a 360˚ trip on top of a firetruck to experience the proximity of the intersection.
He almost didn’t recognize his younger brother, Nate, lying on the ground, until his eyes landed on the “White Boy” tattoo across his neck that would be forever burned in his memory. Nate lived 45 minutes away in Melbourne, so why was he walking across a street in Cocoa?
“Right now, I’m dealing with stuff that I never imagined I would deal with in my life,” said Vandegrift.
He spent the next six months trying to recover from his brother’s death.
Vandegrift was forced to use all his sick leave and vacation days. Days he had accumulated over years of hard work. Days he was waiting to use when he could spend time away with his growing family. But this was not enough. Before he knew it, his paid leave was drained. City workers began donating their sick days to him but even that wasn’t enough. Vandegrift eventually went on unpaid leave until he was forced to go back to work.
“My buddy hurt his back and he’s been out six or eight months,” said Vandegrift. “I see my brother dead on the street, face to face, and I have to go back to work after that.”
Vandegrift had been a firefighter paramedic for 11 years before the call came that sent him spiraling. He was able to receive help 10 days after the doctors told him his brother was brain dead. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has been in therapy for the past eight months.
Under the current laws in Florida, first responders with a mental injury, such as PTSD, cannot receive disability wages unless they also have a physical injury.
Vandegrift was reimbursed for his therapy sessions and the gas he used to get there, but the months he was not able to work will be left out of his salary this year.
Cocoa District Chief Brad Hall has seen the effects PTSD can have on first responders throughout his career. He was there the day Josh Vandegrift’s brother died.
“I immediately got in my truck with Vandy in my passenger seat,” said Hall. “I drove him 20 miles to his house so he could be with his wife and kids.”
Chief Hall has previously helped firefighters suffering from PTSD return to the job.
Hall began taking Vandegrift on ride-alongs. Vandegrift sat in the passenger seat of Hall’s truck as they drove through the intersection time and time again. Attempting to make it easier with each trip.
Vandegrift has now returned to working full time at the station that faces the little white cross on the corner. The cross with his last name written across it.
He is constantly reminded about the life he could not save, but he has found a way to get out of bed in the morning and continue to save the ones he still can.
“I had to figure out how to wrestle with the demons in my brain every day,” said Vandegrift.