Like most of Utah in November 2010, I expected State Parks Ranger Brody Young to die. It seemed logical. Who gets shot nine times and lives?
Brody, a state parks ranger, was shot by a man he found sleeping in a car at the Poison Spider Mesa trailhead near Moab. The suspect also was wounded but managed to escape. Alive or dead, he’s still out there somewhere.
Two weeks ago, Brody and I met at the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial on the west grounds of the State Capitol. We talked briefly about the moment when he almost joined the ranks of more than 130 fallen officers whose names adorn the wall.
“I only knew that I had to stay in the fight,” Brody said about being shot. “It came down to deciding whether I wanted to live or just lay down and die.”
Brody doesn’t like talking about that night but is constantly reminded of how it changed his life and that of his family. He would much rather focus on a renewed sense of obligation to his family and fellow officers.
“I didn’t want to go through all that for nothing,” he said. “I wanted it to mean something.”
But first things first.
Almost as soon as he regained consciousness, Brody knew he had to do the unthinkable — he had to go back to police work. He needed to know whether he could control the fear or it would control him.
The road back was long and never entirely certain. But on June 6, after multiple surgeries, more than a year of physical therapy, and with four bullets still in him, Brody put his uniform back on.
Not everyone is happy with the arrangement. Brody’s wife, Wendy, and their three children understand more than most police families what’s at stake now, and just how fast it can happen.
When Brody’s son saw his father in uniform for the first time, he fearfully wanted to know what was going on.
“I told him that I was just going back on the water,” Brody said.
It was only a small lie. Like most police officers, nearly everyone Brody meets is nice. It’s trying to figure out who isn’t that is the tough part. If you get it wrong, it can kill you. He admits to struggling with this since returning to duty.
What happened to Brody also happened to his family. And in many respects, it is still happening. Wendy Young had to “let” her husband go back. And the couple’s children went from having their father home all the time to seeing him only two days a week now.
“We’re glad he can go back to work,” Wendy said. “But it’s been hard for us to accept that he has. We’re still feeling the ripple effect of what happened.”
Wendy has tried to shield the children from the constant reminders of the ugly side of their father’s job. But Moab is a small town, and she recognizes her husband will always be the guy who got shot so many times and lived.
While she’s grateful for the help and support from family and friends, Wendy misses their life before it was defined by the shooting.
“I wish we could go back to just being us,” she said. “But we can’t.”
Today, Brody assists in all the Utah State Parks law-enforcement activity regarding boating. He spends 10 days a month in Salt Lake City. But he has a deeper sense of what it means to be alive and wants to put what happened to him to good use.
“The public needs to know a lot more about what police officers go through,” he said. “That we’re targets for some people, and it is almost impossible to tell who those people are right away. So every contact is unpredictable.”
Brody also wants to start a support group for wounded police officers and their families. Who better to help them deal with post-shooting trauma and stress than those who have been there?
Then there is the training police officers receive. Brody credits it with saving his life in the seconds after being shot, when despite being ambushed he was able to return fire and defend himself.
“In situations like that, you react the way you train,” he said.
Several months ago, Brody was approached by Ride With Respect, a Moab-based recreational trail-riding association. The group wanted to name a 14-mile stretch of developed trail north of Moab after the guy who fought his way back from the dead.
Brody wasn’t comfortable with being singled out and asked that the trail be named the Fallen Peace Officer Trail instead.
The idea caught on. The Utah Peace Officer Association is developing an annual trail ride benefiting a scholarship fund for the families of officers killed in the line of duty. The first ride will take place April 20.
Brody doesn’t refer to his survival and return to duty as a miracle. He’s keenly aware that other officers in his situation haven’t fared as well.
There’s so much that can be learned from what happened to him, Brody believes. He wants it to mean something more than just that he survived.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.