Cocoa firefighter fighting for PTSD bill: We're not going to stop

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, April 14, 2017, 5:56 PM EDT

Although the clock is running out on the legislative session, those fighting for a bill which would provide workers’ comp for PTSD-suffering first responders aren’t deterred.

“We’re not going to stop," said Josh Vandegrift, who is heading to Tallahassee this weekend to share his story during Monday's hearing. “I was stunned, because I can sprain my pinkie on a call and be covered through workmans' comp. But, seeing my little brother dead in the middle of the street isn’t covered.”

A call last July changed the Cocoa firefighter's life forever: While on duty, Vandegrift was dispatched to the scene of a vehicle versus pedestrian crash.

“I’m clearing the people out of the way and I look down. And my brother had a tattoo on the side of his neck and I saw the tattoo. I was like that’s my brother," he said. “I was screaming his name, crying. It was like a flashback of our lives together, because I knew it wasn’t good.”

Emergency crews rushed Vandegrift's youngest brother, Nate, to the hospital, but he died.

“It’s a firefighter or cop’s worst nightmare, is running in on a family member. And it happened to me. And ever since then I’ve been dealing with it," he said.

Ten days later, Vandegrift sought treatment, later diagnosed with PTSD, acute anxiety and depression. The firefighter said that he couldn't eat or sleep, and began immersing himself in wood projects for the therapeutic effects.

“I wanted to make a place for myself and my family to be able to relax. I built a table completely out of pallet wood, took me six weeks. I call it the family table," he said, skimming over a large, lacquered table in his backyard. “It helped me mentally to create something from nothing.”

In January he returned to work. But, for the last few months he's also found new purpose -- fighting for a bill which would extend workers' compensation to first responders with PTSD.

Vandegrift met Jessica Realin, the wife of an OPD officer who was diagnosed with PTSD after Pulse. They and other first responders are heading to Tallahassee to share their collective stories Monday afternoon, when SB 1088 hits the Banking and Insurance Committee.

But with weeks left in the session and many hurdles to overcome, the bill -- introduced by Senator Victor Torres in February -- likely won't pass. Vandegrift said he's going anyway.

"To be a face, to show this isn’t just writing on a piece of paper, this is real. I’m somebody that this happened to and there needs to be a change," he explained.

SB 1088 needs to be heard in three other committees in the next three weeks in the Senate alone. If it doesn’t pass, Senator Victor Torres said he'll file the bill again next year.

In addition, Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith filed an amendment in the House to a larger Workers' Comp bill Friday. The amendment incorporates much of what SB 1088 is attempting to do.

Smith's aide said the governor would still have to sign it into law.