Josh Vadell just wanted to get back to being “Daddy” again.
On a recent summer day, he cautiously steps out of the family car at Bargaintown Park off Delaware Avenue and walks to the playground with his family of five. Gone is his crutch. Gone are the bandages and helmet he wore for much of the past year, revealing a scar through his close-cut hair. Gone also is the unsteady balance that kept his wife, Laura, glued to his side.
Instead, he walks independently, although with a limp. Next to him are Laura and daughters Adrianna, 7, Vienna, 5, and Lucy, 11 months. Vienna holds his hand.
He’s cracking jokes, smiling and laughing with his family. He pushes Lucy on the swings and takes a break to wave to neighbors who ask how he is.
This time last year, things were different.
On Sept. 3, 2016, Vadell, then a nine-year veteran of the police department, made national news after he was shot in the head while responding to an armed robbery near Caesars’ parking garage. Since then, he has fought his way to back to normalcy, regaining much of his movement and health, though he still faces obstacles.
“I might not be the same daddy I was a year ago, physically, but I’m still their dad,” Vadell, 30, said recently from his Egg Harbor Township home. “I’m just thankful I’m here for them.”
This is Josh’s life trying to go back to normal, 12 months after doctors didn’t know whether he would survive.
A year of challenge and change is behind him, but still more is ahead. In July, Vadell retired from the Atlantic City Police Department, ending a 10 year career.
The bullet that went through his skull resulted in weeks of hospitalization, months of therapy and a few surgeries. After the shooting, his left side was paralyzed and part of his skull was missing.
Laura Vadell, 33, a medical assistant for AtlantiCare Urgent Care, describes the past 12 months as a “big blur.” She remembers being his caretaker, helping him walk, shower and eat. But he does much of it on his own now, she said.
“I know it’s only been a year — it is a short time for the injuries that I suffered,” Josh Vadell said.
The couple didn’t know what to expect after the shooting. Vadell had to relearn basic movements and find a new normal. But he didn’t lose his memories or personality — a possibility for anyone who has a traumatic brain injury.
“It shows me how lucky and fortunate I am,” he said. “My injury was bad, but it could have been worse.”
Therapy a few days a week is helping him get stronger, he said. He walks unassisted now, and is working to strengthen his left leg, arm and hand. He also goes to vision therapy to retrain his left eye muscles.
Vadell said he is starting to feel like himself again — cooking for himself, showering and brushing his teeth on his own, letting the dogs out and going out with his family. Come spring, he will be a stay-at-home dad when Laura Vadell goes back to Rutgers University-Camden to finish her nursing degree.
While Josh Vadell has made it far enough to his recovery that Laura can leave his side, he knows two other people are taking care of him at home: Adrianna and Vienna, who have watched his recovery process and continue to look out for him.
The girls say, “Watch out, Daddy,” when there’s uneven pavement ahead, or if there’s something coming to his left that they know he can’t see.
“I had thought about just giving up trying,” Josh said. “But then I see my daughters in the mornings, they jump on me and say, ‘Daddy, good morning, I love you’ — that’s what keeps me pushing.”
But he still struggles psychologically.
There’s rarely a day he doesn’t think about the incident. He has post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as with trouble sleeping, and he is trying to come to terms with having a disability.
“Inside me, I feel like I should be further along than I am,” he said.
So he keeps pushing himself.
Every year since they married in 2012, the couple has gone to Morton’s Steakhouse at Caesars Atlantic City for their May 24 anniversary. The restaurant is a block away from where the shooting took place. It’s an area he tried to avoid.
But he didn’t want that bad memory to overshadow the couple’s anniversary, so he pushed himself to go anyway.
“I didn’t want to deviate from our plans,” he said. “It was hard for me to be in that area — it brought back memories for me from that night.”
Vadell loved being a police officer.
Deciding to retire wasn’t easy, he says, but it was a decision he had to make for his family. There was no guarantee he would go back to work.
Still close with many of his police colleagues, he calls them brothers. Vadell says what he enjoyed most was helping and protecting people.
He says he’s “always going to be an Atlantic City police officer at heart,” and wants to redirect his attention to what he loves to do — helping people — in a different way.
The Vadells have set up a foundation to help families whose loved one is injured in the line of duty. The foundation, called This Blue Life Matters: The Josh Vadell Foundation, will raise funds and direct proceeds to families of officers in New Jersey.
“If it were to get larger than that, we would be able to help out of state as well,” Laura Vadell said. “We’re trying to pay it forward.”
Vadell also wants to get into motivational speaking, sharing his story to help others. In June, he gave the keynote speech to the Basic Course for Police Officers graduating class at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology.
“I do want to continue to help others. Maybe not as physically as I did before, but mentally I want to give people the motivation to push through any difficulties in their lives,” he said.
“Everybody has the fight within them, they just have to dig deep enough to find it.”