It was September 8, 2008. Rookie Officer Brandy Roell found herself being loaded onto a medical helicopter from an ambulance. She’d just been in a surreal shootout with 43-year-old felon and would-be cop killer Andres Vargas. Brandy had been left alone in the Vargas residence to finish the fight on her own after her FTO, who had also been wounded, and his uninjured back up officer had fled the house. Vargas was armed with an AK-47, but despite her initial injuries, Brandy provided her own cover and made her way down the stairs and to the patio area of the house, where Officer Pete Garcia risked his own life to carry her to safety. She’d made it out of that house of horrors, but the rest of her journey was just beginning.
In the ambulance, the medics had commented that they had never seen anyone so badly injured remain so calm. “Are you in pain?” they asked her. She told them her stomach hurt. She also asked them to please straighten out her leg. Her legs had been injured by debris in the initial blast of rifle fire, and when she had made her way down the stairs, a round from the AK-47 had pierced her gun belt and her keepers from behind, striking her spine and blowing a huge hole through her abdomen, exposing her intestines. She heard one of the medics exclaim “holy shit!” as they examined her and discovered her extraordinary wounds. “We have to get her there now!” he said, referring to the trauma center.
They cut off her clothing and stabilized her as they raced to meet the chopper. The media was there – word had gotten out that two cops had been shot and Vargas was holding the SWAT team at bay outside of his house – and the medics yelled “cover her up!” as they transferred her to the helicopter. Despite her injuries, she was aware of the media presence and she asked fellow public safety personnel to “contact my family.” She didn’t want her kids, 8, 6, and 4, to see her on the news and become frightened. Selflessness is a core element of Brandy Roell’s true nature, and even as she fought for her life, she worried about those closest to her.
Brandy remembers only a little of the chopper ride before she lost consciousness. She was treated at the University Hospital in San Antonio. The initial surgery was extensive; Vargas’s round had entered her lower back and had blown a hole from the bottom of her breast bone twelve inches down to just above her pubis. Her right leg was badly damaged, as was her spine and bladder. She was unconscious for nearly a month. She remembers little of those first 30 days, but she knows that her 8 year old daughter came to visit. “She needed to see for herself that I was alive,” Brandy told me. She was later told that the hospital was also crowded with cops as her brothers and sisters from SAPD gathered around.
As Brandy slowly gained consciousness, she recalled little things, like being bothered by the noise of the television set in her room. There was talk of amputating one of her legs, which left her depressed. She was thin but swollen, and in terrible pain. She was afraid to move, and when she tried, she told me “I was surprised by how much didn’t work.” After three months in the hospital, Brandy was transferred to a rehabilitation center.
She was told by one of the doctors she would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “I just looked at him and thought ‘that might be a pain in the butt,” she told me with a laugh. “I got up and started moving by myself…a little bit, a couple of steps at a time.” She was left with no feeling in her left leg or on the bottom of her right foot, but she learned to use her hips to swing her legs, making her surprisingly mobile. She generally has to use a cane, which frustrates her, and the internal damage has left her with a whole host of issues, including the inability to conceive another child.
As Brandy told PoliceOne’s Dave Smith in an on-camera exclusive for our “Will to Win” series, she feels guilty about her three kids. “Sometimes I wonder if I was being selfish, becoming a cop.” She is in constant pain and can’t always do the things she wants to do as a young mom of three active kids. “But I just try to show them the courage that I have,” she said, “and they are good little troopers.”
Brandy is now medically retired from the San Antonio police department. Because she was still in field training at the time of her shooting, she is financially frozen and stuck at rookie pay. At times she feels bitter. “I didn’t get to do the things I really wanted to do, like work a homicide.” Her husband is very understanding, but his life changed as well. Their plan was for her to work as a police officer while he went to school full time to get a better job; that dream was shattered by her catastrophic injuries. She received several awards for her bravery, but as she told me “I’m not the same person anymore, and I don’t know if that person is ever going to come back.”
“I think about how proud I was the day I graduated the academy,” Brandy says. “Wow, I was a police officer! I was so proud and happy that I had the opportunity to change people’s lives.” Brandy hasn’t given up on her strong desire to change lives, and she wants other police officers to learn from her story. “Never, never, never give up.” she told Dave Smith. “Train hard, no matter how experienced you are. The criminals are training hard, and we have to be ready.”
She advises officers who have lost their career like she has to find something about your situation that you can teach others, something that you can share. “Give back” is her motto. She is now becoming an activist fighting against human trafficking. And, she told both Dave and I, “never leave another officer behind.” Officer Brandy Roell was left behind that day, but she did what warriors do; she fought back, and she won.