COLUMBUS — Five months ago State Trooper Jason Phillips nearly lost his life. On Wednesday he walked, with assistance, back into the Ohio Highway Patrol’s Training Academy where he graduated more than a year ago.
Phillips was struck by an impaired driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Morrow County on June 27. He was removed from his vehicle before it became fully engulfed by flames. The swift actions taken by several motorists, first responders and medical professionals saved the 23-year-old’s life.
Phillips and his family said a public thank you during a recognition ceremony at the academy.
“Emotional,” answered Phillips when asked by media members how it felt to return to the site where he prepared to be a trooper.
His father Jason Sr. called it “surreal” and his mother Tina said the family is “thankful … We’ve had our ups and downs through this. You see him struggle and fight harder than he’s ever had to do in his life … He thought the academy was hard to go through.”
Two members of the Morrow County EMS unit — Judy Ortiz and Adam Vanduzen — also were recognized during a ceremony.
“Our faith helped us quite a bit,” Jason Sr. said when describing the incident and subsequent recovery.
Jason continues to undergo physical therapy daily after suffering head, rib and leg injuries as well as burns.
“As a mom, my worst fear was him getting shot,” Tina said. “He has a heart for being a trooper.”
His dad added, “He knew the dangers of the job.”
Phillips said he is learning to walk again and his speech is improving.
“Thank you for thinking of me, and caring,” he said.
The family has received an outpouring of cards, texts and letters, some coming from children.
“Those are lifting him up in prayer and telling him, ‘We Got Your 6,’ meaning we got your back, and has meant so much,” Tina said.
She said her son’s strength and endurance are returning. “He’s a fighter.”
His dad said his son’s recovery is further along than what some had initially thought.
“We were told he wouldn’t walk at all for a year. Simple little things like writing your name and feeding himself, which he’s doing daily. Actually, it’s brought us closer as a family and our faith has gone up quite a bit.”
Asked whether they had regrets about their son’s career choice, they replied no.
“I would tell those young people who want to be in the patrol or a police officer, don’t stop. Go for your dream,” Tina said.
Phillips said he misses being at work and “making a difference.”
Lt. Gurjit S. Grewal, Mount Gilead Post Commander, also thanked those who have helped the family.
“What happened had an enormous effect on Jason, his family and everyone at the post. We want to thank everyone; those who brought food to the post, those businesses who held fundraisers to help with the medical costs and those in local law enforcement,” he said.
“It kept our morale up and all of you played a key role in this recovery,” Lt. Grewal said.
The role of first responders Ortiz and Vanduzen was critical in the immediate aftermath of the crash, along with that of Good Samaritans Harold Heller, Kojo Tsiboe and Jorge Jimenez, John Yeichner and Kenneth Rosser, all of whom assisted in removing Phillips from the vehicle.
“The swift actions of seven people, who risked their own safety, we owe each of you our deepest respect and admiration,” OSHP Superintendent Col. Richard Fambro said.
The Ohio State University Medical Center staff also was recognized.
Patrol Chaplain Ed Zell has gotten to know the family well during this trying time.
“God spoke to me and said, ‘My trooper shall live and not die,’” he said. “We’ve been working to be uplifting and encouraging. I see him (being) completely restored.”
Tina said the outpouring has been overwhelming.
“It puts a smile on his face. It doesn’t matter about culture or color. People come together and say we need to pull for this guy and help him and his family.”