VANGUARD: John, your badge number is 2889. Is that the original badge number for you?
RUFFNER: It is. There's more to it. On my second hire date, I was temporarily given a different badge number; 4146, but I suppose we can get into that later.
VANGUARD: We can, but first, I want to thank you for being here today. So, tell me a little about yourself. You're here in uniform-what district are you working?
RUFFNER: I'm working days in District Yellow for Rich Benitez with S-M-T off. Good group of guys. I've been back now for about a year…
VANGUARD: Okay, before we get there, tell me about you. Where are you from?
RUFFNER: My family is originally from Southern California. My dad was in the construction industry, and jobs were drying up down there in the sixties while things were booming here in the Bay Area. He had some original family roots in the San José area, so the family moved up here and he had more work than he could handle at that time. My mom was working as a nurse down in the L.A. area-she left that taking on the task of raising five kids-I'm the youngest of the five. So my mom dealt with that and dad went to work. My folks bought a house up here for something like $10k and the rest is history. So I grew up here-was born in 1968 and went through the public school system.
VANGUARD: Where'd you go to high school?
RUFFNER: I graduated from Pioneer High. I was raised in a very devout Catholic home and played sports, and I suppose that's what kept me on the straight and narrow. I went to church every week and played ball on the weekends.
VANGUARD: What were you best at in sports?
RUFFNER: Baseball was definitely my main sport. I played everything across the board, but baseball was definitely my thing. I was always the little skinny kid, so football usually got the best of me.
VANGUARD: So what'd you do after high school?
RUFFNER: I knew at a fairly young age that I wanted a career in the fire service or police work. I suppose that started as a kid watching "Adam 12" and "Emergency." I knew I wanted to work in either San José or Los Angeles. So right after high school, I went to San José City College and started getting my GE out of the way. I took an EMT course over the summer and I think I was also enrolled at Mission College at about that same time as I was working on my Fire Science stuff. I would have to say my initial interest was with fire; in the late 80's I tested for SJFD and I did fairly well, but I was still going to school and I was pretty young. As I continued on that route through college, I got my EMT certification and started working in Santa Clara County EMS. From there I met some paramedics and got hooked up with some guys at Saratoga Fire. Next thing I knew, I got into Stanford University's Paramedic Program, which to this day is one of the most challenging scholastic things I've ever done. In 1988 I started working as full-time paramedic for Medevac Paramedics here in Santa Clara County and I was doing some part-time stuff with Saratoga Fire Department. That went very well, and at some point-around '89 or '90-I went to the reserve academy out at Evergreen. Ironically my paramedic partner had become a sheriff's deputy in South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side. He was with Douglas County S/O. (He eventually came back to SJFD by the way). He said the fire department was great, but that the police department was much less competitive in terms of the shear number of people applying. I thought, well, I don't want to move to Tahoe. So I started in the reserve academy down here and applied for SJPD. Lo and behold, I did well in the testing process and got hired in late 1990. I was in the 1991 spring academy with a bunch of great guys. My backgrounder was Anton Erickson; the chief at the time was Joseph MacNamara; I went through with Larry Day, Jason Woodall, Tom Morales, Mike Kihmm, Alex Nguyen, Kevin Wrenn, Todd Lonac, Minh Phan, Teddy LaCap, Howard Johnson, Fred Lagergren, James Ford, Bobby Riechert, Kurt Phelps and some of the other guys that I'm still friends with have moved out of the area to work for Sacramento County DA's Office-Paul Chrisman and Jay Simms. I also worked with a guy named Jim Berry-he was a cop here for quite a while and then left to go back to Boston to continue his law enforcement career. Any rate, great guys, and most of them are still in the law enforcement community somehow. They are Lifelong friends and good people.
VANGUARD: So you were pretty well entrenched in the medical field and fire science and paramedic work…I'm surprised you're in a police uniform.
RUFFNER: You know, San José Fire offered me a job, but by then I was already working at the PD and frankly I was loving life. I had gone through the academy and the FTO program and had worked a couple teams, and I was actually in VCET when SJFD offered me the job. If they had talked to me a year or two prior, I'd be sitting here in turnouts.
VANGUARD: Tell me about your family.
RUFFNER: My wife Jovita is awesome and she's the love of my life. I've been with her for almost 19 years. We married in 1994. She's the pillar of my life; the mother of our four children, but when I crashed and was in the hospital undergoing multiple surgeries, she was the rock that held my family together.
VANGUARD: What are the names of your children?
RUFFNER: Our first-born is Jessica Nicole. She's our beautiful-and only-daughter. She's going to be six this June.
VANGUARD: Only daughter? Poor thing.
RUFFNER: Yep. Then our first boy is Johnny-he's almost four-and then I thought we were done, but Jovita said, "They say you know when you know, and I feel like we need one more child." I said, "Well, I think I'm good with two, but okay." And there you go, we had twins-James and Justin-and they were born May of '08, so they're just little guys.
VANGUARD: And you had indicated when we were talking off-mic that they were premature?
RUFFNER: Yes, there were some complications with the pregnancy. Any time you have multiples, you can have issues, and a very high percentage of them result in premature birth. So that was the case with our boys, and they spent about a month or so in the NICU at Good Sam-just an amazing group of people over at that hospital. They catered to our babies' needs and our needs as a family…it was a very trying time. We were happy as could be with these beautiful children, and yet it was very difficult to see them in the NICU. Justin was the better of the two initially health-wise; little James had to have help breathing, and it was emotionally tough to see that. They were so tiny, but we had faith in the Good Lord and had every bit of confidence that the boys would pull through, and in fact they did just fine. At this point, you'd never know they were premature. As they've hit their various stages of growth, they are bigger than our other kids were at those same stages. It all worked out well for us.
VANGUARD: So you've got your hands full with four.
RUFFNER: You know, it's funny. We were trying and trying and having no luck with having kids. Ironically one of my first bosses in Special Ops was Pete Decena-great man, by the way. I am sorry to see him leave. Pete and his wife Connie were trying to have kids at the same time that Jovita and I were. As it worked out, Pete and Connie had success right away. Little did I know; it was going to take so long for us to have our success. I had to retire apparently, in order to have kids… we had them during my time away from active duty.
VANGUARD: That's awesome. And yes, Pete is a great guy. It's a major loss to the department, but it's a great gain for the Spartans. He's going to have a good time over there.
RUFFNER: I absolutely agree. I think our loss is their gain, but he's a good man and I wish him the best.
VANGUARD: Absolutely. So let's talk about you, John. I don't want to get into things you've done. My main concern is that if you're not the only one-or maybe one of the few-that has actually been injured on the job, been retired, rehabilitated yourself to death and come back to work full-time. That's why I have you here. There are a lot of young officers, or officers that are mid-career that are injured, and they need to understand that it's not the end to everything. Some people may think of you as the village idiot for coming back from disability retirement, but you're back. So let's go back to your first hire, and what caused you to retire the first time.
RUFFNER: Sure. I was right in the middle of having my cake and eating it too. I was loving life and enjoying a good ride. I'd worked three years in patrol, and then I went to VCET. After VCET, I tested and got into a unit upstairs. As it worked out, that wasn't the right course for me at that time. One afternoon, I ran into Mike Fehr, and he happened to have a study packet for motors. He told me he wanted me to take the test, and gave me the packet. I thought, "That's not the right place for me to be going right now in my career." But I studied and passed the test and went to the Motor Academy with Joe Wicker, Mike Kihmm, Greg Raymond and Dave Silva-a whole bunch of good folks. I got into motors and it took no time at all to realize what a great unit it was.
VANGUARD: So did you have any prior experience riding motorcycles?
RUFFNER: I grew up riding dirt bikes, and I had motorcycles most of my life, but I will say this right now: Enforcement-style riding on a police motorcycle and the type of riding that you do that starts in the Motor Academy and continues on the streets is far and beyond more precise and more intricate than any type of civilian riding. I would speculate that people would pay tens of thousands of dollars to get the type of training that we get at motor school. It's awesome. The guys are always motivated to train you and it's great training. I would say that probably 70% of the civilian riders have no business being on a motorcycle on the street. Having been a motorcycle rider most of my life, I learned so much when I went to motor school. The trainers were confident and patient and it's a great training program.
VANGUARD: I hear that it's one of the toughest academies to get through.
RUFFNER: It is. I think they're lucky if they get 50% of the applicants through, and that's not unique to SJPD's motor school. After I got into motors, I had the opportunity to take some advanced officer training at the CHP Academy in West Sac, and I talked to their instructors in depth. It was a multi-day course, and they have about the same odds for passing their people. Same with LAPD. It's practically the only unit at the department where assignment isn't guaranteed just because you pass the test and get on the list. It's why you get an extended assignment instead of three years. It's for everyone's safety, and the reality is far fewer officers' crash on motorcycles per capita than officers in cars. I'm not saying that guys are better motorcycle riders than they are drivers; it's just that you're held to a higher standard. That being said, when I was in motors, I was a good rider… far from the best rider in the unit, but I was solid. To some extent, you get cocky and you get really comfortable on a motorcycle. You're on that thing all the time, and the bottom line is it bit me in the ass.
I had been on motors about two years, and I felt comfortable and confident until March 10, 1999. It was a great day. It was cold, and we were doing a training ride down south of Hollister. I remember parts of it, and other parts I've just been told about. Joe Schneider was in front; I was right behind Joe, and there were other people there as well-Joel Gonzales, Bob Reinhardt, Al Cavallo and Ed Marini-we were doing a training ride. None of us were trainees. We were all experienced motor officers doing a typical training day. The concept is that you try to maintain a 2-3 second interval with the guy in front of you. It replicates higher speed riding and pursuits. We don't typically do it within the city limits because there aren't that many places in San José that aren't too congested. You can't be shutting down roads all over the place, so you go to the outskirts where you've got a more rural setting. Joey Schneider was very familiar with this particular road, and I think the assumption was that I was too; the reality is that I was not. The road started undulating and I lost sight of Joe, but he didn't say anything on the radio so I assumed it must still be straight. Unfortunately there was a 25mph left turn that came up and I was going way too fast for it. I scrubbed as much speed as I could. I thought I had shot straight through it, but from the CHP report and from what my colleagues told me, I actually made it through most of the turn before I left the road. Basically there's the lane, and that's it. I was riding a Kawasaki because that's what we had back then, and I went right off the roadway. I went off the road, flipped several times with the motorcycle and eventually I was catapulted off the bike and I guess I landed in a drainage ditch like a spear.
VANGUARD: When you lost control of the bike going into that corner, what was the final thought you can recall?
RUFFNER: Funny you should say that-being a good Catholic kid, I always thought, Well, if I know something really bad is going to happen, I'd probably say a quick prayer or think of my family or whatever. Truthfully, what I remember was being totally intent on how I was going to get myself out of that situation. My last thought I recall was: Keep your eyes up on the horizon and ride through it. Just keep your eyes up and ride through this turn. I don't know-had I had maybe six inches more of pavement, maybe I could have. Had I been on one of the new Hondas, maybe I could have. But the bottom line is none of that worked out for me. I remember thinking at some point, Oh, shit! This isn't going to be good. That's really the last thing I remember. I don't have any recollection of the scene. I was unconscious for a period of time, and from what I've been told, either not breathing correctly or not breathing at all. To this day I feel so bad for putting my buddies, my wife, my parents, everybody through the wringer with emotions.
I guess I was going in and out of consciousness at the scene, but I remember waking up in the helicopter as they were taking me to VMC and I don't know if I was actually conscious or not, but I remember the flight nurse was asking me really basic questions, and everyone just kept calling me "Officer," and I remembered that I was an officer but I didn't know what had happened. I just knew that I was in an unbelievable amount of pain. I was scared, but I didn't know what was going on, and I just remember thinking, I can't believe a person can be in this much pain and still be alive.
VANGUARD: Who rode with you in the chopper?
RUFFNER: None of our guys did because I don't think they have the room for it. It's a weight issue on the aircraft.
VANGUARD: So you went to VMC, and what happened?
RUFFNER: Again it's kind of a bizarre experience because remember, I had been a paramedic, and with lots of experience working in this county. I had treated everything from 11-79 victims to 10-71 victims everything in between... mountain climbing falls-everything you can imagine. I can't tell you how many times I had been involved with trauma alerts and treating the patients and being an integral part of the staff-even when you get to the ER as a paramedic, you're still busy working on the transition of care and working with the doctors and nurses. Well, roles got reversed that day.
VANGUARD: Were you in your BDU's?
RUFFNER: No, I was in a regular motor uniform, and I had just bought a brand new leather jacket by the way.
VANGUARD: Dammit. There goes, what $600?
RUFFNER: Oh yeah, a ridiculous amount of money. And I remember that at the scene, the guys were trying to take off my jacket to assess my injuries, but I was so busted up-the whole left side of my body was broken up-that moving even an inch sent me over the edge, so they ended up cutting everything off.
I remember at some point laying there and thinking, oh, so THIS is what it's like on this side of things. There was lots of noise and commotion. I remember being very cold-I could not get warmed up-part of being in shock. At some point I started to have some more clear memories. I remember lots of cops being there. I remember my family being there at the hospital. I remember the first time I set my eyes on my wife and…Juan, it took me a long time before I could talk about this stuff without choking up, but I'm finally in a more solid spot in my life on it. I've accepted everything that happened and I appreciate everything that my family did for me. One of the big regrets is I always used to tell my wife, "Honey, you don't have to worry about me. I'm a good cop and I hang out with good people. I train really hard and I will never be the guy that you get the visit about." And that didn't work out. I couldn't keep that promise.
My first really strong memories start around the day after the accident. I remember waking up and I was pretty doped up in the neurosurgery unit at VMC and I ended up with a cracked skull, nose, jaw, crushed left shoulder / scapula. I broke my back in four places and I think I broke six ribs. Amazingly, after all that-and I'm sure I looked like hell-the only really splint type mechanism I had on was a sling on my left arm because most of the breaks were in areas where they couldn't be splinted. So I spent quite a while in VMC and eventually was released. Ironically, right at that time, we had just bought a house and sold our other house. So, on top of everything else we were basically transients. We didn't have any kids yet so that simplified things. My folks let us borrow a room at their home in San José. All my doctors and appointments were at VMC so it was reasonable for my recovery and rehabilitation. The guys in the motor unit-and even guys I'd worked with in VCET or patrol-were unbelievable with helping us out.
VANGUARD: How was the administration for you?
RUFFNER: You know, this department is such a stand-up organization. I know guys complain-we've talked about it before-both in regards to this and other things. But the bottom line is, we are so lucky to be working for this department. The brotherhood of this department from your fellow officers all the way up the chain of command is phenomenal. I remember Chief Arca and Chief Wheatley were always there, making sure my family was taken care of. The guys in the unit would go grocery shopping for us…literally anything we needed, my buddies were on it. That being said, I was off work for 8-10 months. The house we had purchased was ready to be moved into. Well, Rick Botar was our lieutenant at the time, and Al Cavallo was my boss. They put together a group of guys, and it was unbelievable. We had an entire two-story house moved-and I mean everything even put away-in about two hours. Those guys wouldn't let me lift a finger for anything. They made sure my wife was taken care of, and believe it or not, nothing was broken, no carpets were stained, it was great.
VANGUARD: You'd be surprised what a case of beer does for some guys.
RUFFNER: You better believe it. A few pizzas and some beer. But addressing your question about the administration-during that whole process, this department was, bar none, a number one outfit. I truly believe in my heart of hearts that they care specifically for us. I know there are guys that have had things go on in their career and they have issues and they're disgruntled with certain department heads or whatever-well, I can't say I have that opinion. There were some things that were frustrating that transpired in regards to the city, but not the department. When all this occurred, I was right in the middle of my career, and the last thing I ever thought about was disability or anything like that. I was just loving going to work. To this day, very rarely do I wake up dreading going to work. I mean I truly like my job and where I work. I appreciate it even more now than ever before. But I am much more educated about my rights as an employee and how the whole system works.
In a nutshell, I was off for about ten months. I came back to work and I was still in motors, and I thought that at that point my clock sets back to "zero" and I'm good to go as far as my disability time or any of that stuff. I had been on disability that whole time. So I was still receiving full pay, benefits, etc. and everything was golden. As time was passing, I was having lots of complications. Even though the bones had basically healed, I was still having problems because I had blown out a whole bunch of discs during the crash and every tooth in my mouth was broken or cracked. I had all these vertebrae that were shifted and crushed, my right arm would go numb-it would be cold to the touch and it would change colors. I wouldn't be able to feel my legs or I would have extreme pain. I was getting migraines almost daily and I thought, something's not right. It got to the point where sometimes I would sit down and I wouldn't be able to get back up. I thought, I can still move, but something is wrong here. I'm not paralyzed, but I knew I had a problem.
The whole cavalcade of doctors began at that point, and I went from one specialist to another to another to another. They did every kind of test you can imagine from bone scans to MRIs to CAT scans. The bottom line is, nearly all of them said, "I can't believe you're working as a motorcycle cop right now. There are people that are dealing with the injuries you're dealing with and they aren't walking." So they finally sent me to San Francisco and did some extensive tests. They did all this stuff, and that doctor from that point forward would not allow me to be on active duty. He put me on modified duty and would only let me work 20 hours per week. You think, Hey, daytime cop working 20 hours/week with the rest of the week off. Well, I'll tell you what. It wasn't my cup of tea, and on top of that, the problem wasn't being fixed, and all these guys would look at it and say, "In 15 years you're not going to walk any more, things in your body are going to quit working, and we'll deal with it then." And I thought, that can't be right. I accept what you guys are saying, but with all due respect, if we need to fix it, let's fix it now while I have my youth and my motivation. I'm really healthy; I work out and ride my bike, so let's do this right now. My fitness level probably had a lot to do with my recovery, and the level of motivation. I was referred me to this doctor in Los Gatos, and the guy was like the Mad Scientist. He did a bunch of tests and pored through my file. Then he drew everything out on paper about what he perceived was going on with my back and what needed to be done to fix it. At that time, he said we'd have to put some instrumentation on the thoracic portion, which is the middle portion of the back, and that I'd be off work for 3-4 weeks, plus 3-4 weeks of modified duty, and then I'd be set. He said I'd be healthy and not have the migraines or numbness and pain and stuff.
VANGUARD: So was this doctor a city-approved doctor?
RUFFNER: Yes. He's a private physician and he's on the list. Backing up a bit, I have to give kudos to Chris Monahan, Sr., Lieutenant Monahan's father. Great man-unbelievable commitment and a good, caring man. I never had to ask twice for anything. He was just always on it. He had all the paperwork done Johnny-on-the-spot. Just a great man. I owe a big thanks to him. I've told him that personally, but I'll say it again. He always made sure I was approved for an assessment or treatment or whatever.
So this is now a couple of years after the initial crash, but I'm at a point in my life, Juan, where things are miserable. I'm just having difficulty getting through my day because of the amount of pain I was in, etc. Not all of my body was working right and it was very frustrating. So when this guy said that he could fix me, I immediately clung to that. Needless to say we get everything in order, and we go in for surgery and he says it's going to be a long surgery-hopefully just one, but he may have to do two-and it's going to be 12-15 hours long. And this was after a long period of meeting with these doctors and his whole team. There were three surgeons on the team, and I'd checked their résumés out-they were a good group of people. Dave Bridgen was down there with us-and that's another guy I've neglected to mention. There have been so many people that have been so good to my family; it's hard to name every single one. I couldn't even try to name them all because I'd leave someone out. Bottom line, we go down, and I remember the morning of the surgery I was so motivated to get this done. I was fearful to some extent but I wasn't focusing on the fear. For whatever reason, the doctor wanted to do all of this at Los Gatos Community Hospital. I go in for the surgery and one surgery turned into another one, and my body was having a real hard time with it. They found that they actually had to fuse ten vertebrae together. The surgeries ended up being 18 hours each. My body started not responding well to the medications. I started something called "multi-system shut-down" where my lungs collapsed, my liver started going bad. I got something like 40 or 50 ulcers in esophagus and my stomach. My gall bladder failed, I was bleeding internally. I went from 195 pounds to 112 pounds, and a month later I was still in the hospital and now I'm saying prayers to die because I was miserable and I knew my life was never going to be the same. After three surgeries I get a pulmonary specialist who told my wife, "get him out of here or he'll never leave the hospital alive." Even though my one lung was not completely inflated and my O2 saturation was still off, they decided to let me go home. It was so tumultuous in the hospital, but once again my pillar was my wife-and I don't know how she did it because she was still working full-time-and she was constantly at the hospital. My folks were there, my brothers Bill and Rob, my in-laws…I have a great family. I credit them with me pulling through all this.
I finally went home, and it took several months of recovery there. Right in the midst of all that, I'm out of time, because you only get one year, and if you have a major injury, a year goes by really fast. Keep in mind, I had gone back to work, never gotten a permanent and stationary rating; next thing I've got no time left. So I started burning my comp time, sick time, etc. There were two guys that really fought hard for me. One was Al Cavallo, and the other was Brett Muncy. Two incredible guys. Brett is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to retirement and just employee-relations issues in general. I forever owe that guy thanks. But the bottom line is, they tried to coordinate with the city for a catastrophic time donation, and ultimately the city came back and said, "No, it didn't qualify because it was an on-duty accident," so I wasn't eligible to receive that, even though there were guys lining up to give me whatever I needed. I appreciate that, but the bottom line was, "Sorry, thanks for playing." And I was out of time. Then I got a call from the City of San José saying that the city was beginning the process of separation because they couldn't keep a part time cop, etc. Brett Muncy did whatever he had to do to help me. He helped me with all the paperwork and making contacts, and I retired out. I remember it seemed like I had worked so hard to get this job that I loved, and I remember being over at the old City Hall at the retirement hearing and it was over in just a few minutes. If I said my eyes were dry when I walked out of there, I'd be lying. I hobbled out of there with my silly walker looking like a 90-year old man and I was crushed. From there I went over to Personnel and the gal there could tell I was hurting. They were very good to me; every step of the way, the department treated me like a prince. I was a little frustrated with the inflexibility of the city, and I'll tell you what, everything you hear about being "just a number" with the city? That's it. You're just a number. There are certain caring individuals, both sworn and non-sworn, but the city is an employer and they need to abate as much liability as they can, and I was certainly a liability because I had some major injuries.
So next thing you know I was retired. The doctor had originally said it would take 2-4 years to recover.
VANGUARD: So how many years did you have on when you retired out?
RUFFNER: I had about 12 years on. It was kind of funky there-it was just shy of 13 and because I was in this period for several months where I wasn't receiving a full paycheck and there's this thing called "integration" that mixes city disability with state disability-I had long since been out of disability time, and I was actually going negative on the clock on service time. At any rate, I remember way back when I first met the doctor that did the surgery. He said there are two things that are going to slow your recovery: One is narcotics, the other is an attorney. He said the quicker I could distance myself from both of those things, the faster I would recover, and I always remembered that. That was always my focus. The bottom line is I did the best I could to recover as quickly as I could, and I quit taking pain meds and just focused on recovery. I wasn't ready for this curve ball in my life. I appreciate the fact that you even asked to interview me. I thought, "No one wants to hear my story." But the reality is that if people take nothing else from this, please; know what your rights are as an employee. We are in a dangerous job, whether it's a training accident or some incident that occurs with some lunatic on the street, there's a high probability that you're going to get hurt during your career, and it may in fact be a major injury. It could change your life. Just have your ducks in a row. It doesn't matter where you are in the game; if you've got six months on or 25 years, you've got to know what you can or can't do, and what the city can and can't do.
When all the dust settled, my brother Bill, an ex-reserve by the way-I think his badge was 427A-owns a Trek bicycle store here in town. He's a huge bike fanatic. It's a business my folks started almost 40 years ago. Bill took me in. He said he needed a partner to help run the business. I said, All right, I'm your man. It was something for me to do during that time.
VANGUARD: Does your brother still own the shop?
RUFFNER: Oh yeah, he does.
VANGUARD: What's the name of the place?
RUFFNER: It's called Trek Bicycle Store of San José. It's over on Capitol and Vista Park. A lot of the guys from the PD are regulars in there; a lot of retired guys still go in there as well. It's a good thing. So it was a way to make some extra money, it was a way to keep me occupied, and it was a healthy environment. Again, my brother is a fitness fanatic and a cancer survivor and he fights really hard to be in good physical shape. The guy is a nut-he'll get up at 3:30 in the morning if he has to so he can go on his bike ride or his run or get his lift in. That said, he was also an important part of my recovery because he put me through the paces physically and inspired me to ride more. At about the 2-3 year mark, I was feeling good. My mind was strong and my body was strong again. I don't remember the exact date but I called up my buddy Brett Muncy and said, "Hey, I don't know how to do this, but I want to be back at the PD. This whole retirement thing doesn't work for me." And Brett said, "I've been waiting for this phone call." And he said, "Nobody else has done it, but let's do it. You're the man."
VANGUARD: What did your wife, Jovita, say?
RUFFNER: Oh, yeah…um…
VANGUARD: (laughter) Obviously this was a "me" thing, but what did she think?
RUFFNER: Well, all of a sudden we had all these kids now and there was a lot that had changed in my life just in the few years I had been off.
VANGUARD: And I think we had discussed earlier in the interview that the kids didn't come along until you were retired out.
RUFFNER: Right. Exactly. We went through the fertility process and the whole bit. 20 years ago I wouldn't have been able to do this, but fortunately because of modern medicine we've got these great kids. So there was a lot on the table there, and Jovita knew that in order for me to be a whole man again, and for me to be happy, I was dying inside not being an active duty cop. I have lots of friends outside of the department and outside of public safety in general, but I have to say, my entire adult life I've either been a paramedic or with the SJPD. This is who I am and what I do. It's corny, but it's true-it's not just a job, it's who we are. There isn't another job on the planet that has the brotherhood and the commitment to each other that we have. I would speculate maybe the military or the fire department does, but that's about it. So I had many long conversations with my wife, and she was completely on-board with it.
VANGUARD: From what I understand, she was probably your number one habilitator. She got you back on your feet.
RUFFNER: Juan, I can't say it enough. My wife is my everything. It took me the longest time to even be able to tell the story without choking up. I mean, I don't mean to get vulgar, but I couldn't even wipe my own ass. I mean I was a mess. A big day for me was taking a lap around the living room. I remember getting excited one day because it was sunny outside and we were going to go out on the porch and plant some flowers. It's amazing what happens to you when you lose the most basic faculties, like walking. Having been an athlete all my life, I went from that level of fitness to having none at all. Wow, I refocused on a whole bunch of stuff. So my number one, my Jovita, was right there, standing by my side again.
Needless to say, I got some input from Brett Muncy and I started the process. All told it took almost three years. My POST had actually lapsed, so Brett said there might be something over at the academy. I called up a buddy of mine-one of my former bosses who's now over at the DA's office-Bruce Ray, and I said, "Didn't Bob Beams go through a thing at the academy?" and he said, "He absolutely did," and he gave me the contact information. I got in touch with POST in Sacramento and they said yes, and they gave me the info on it. So I got signed up to do a POST re-cert and I don't know if I was lucky or unlucky, but I sat next to Reese Gwillam the whole time, and that was an experience in and of itself. Great, great guy. We had a great time during that three-week class.
VANGUARD: So you didn't really suffer that much.
RUFFNER: Yeah, it wasn't that bad. I had to listen to Reese's cheesy humor for a while, but it was okay.
VANGUARD: Yeah, but three weeks is doable. Anything beyond that, you almost want to commit suicide.
RUFFNER: Well, indeed. I can't say I didn't contemplate it, but… (laughter)
VANGUARD: Reese will do that to you.
RUFFNER: So I get that part knocked out, and started a long process of trying to convince…not so much the department, in fact not the department at all. I submitted a Memorandum of Intent to change my status from "retired" to "active duty" and my wife was blown away again that within a day of me sending it, Chief Cavallaro was calling my house. Dave called at least once a week-he was constantly calling. Even Chief Davis called me. I have no sour grapes-I can't say anything negative about any of these people. They were there for me, and they were saying, "Hey, we're tracking your progress, it looks like you're doing everything you need to be doing, is there anything you need?" Constantly, it was literally verbatim, just like that. They are great people. So the next step was to convince the city medical director that I'm not a soup sandwich, and that took a lot.
VANGUARD: And who was that at the time?
RUFFNER: Dr. Rajiv Das.
VANGUARD: (laughter) Need we say any more?
RUFFNER: So I went through some hoops, and we'll leave it at that.
RUFFNER: Then the next step was to become "un-disabled." So it's kind of like going to a disability retirement hearing, but in reverse. I made sure my ducks were lined up, but I know for a fact that the city attorney's office was not supportive of my endeavors. Understandably so; I've got 10 vertebrae fused in my back, and all these other bones that are certainly healed but I had some major injuries, and I'm lucky to be sitting here breathing this air, much less being a cop again.
So, I went through the process of being un-disabled which doesn't necessarily mean that I'm instantly back on active duty. I was un-disabled, and thank goodness I was still receiving a paycheck for retirement and retired BC Ken Herredia who was on the board asked some very specific and pointed questions and got it on the minutes of the meeting to make sure that in case the city or the department, for whatever reason, decided not to reactivate me, would I still get paid? And the answer was, Yes, absolutely. Even though I was "un-disabled," I would still receive disability retirement until the city or department determined I could return to active duty. The only glitch there was if they made that offer, and late in the game I changed my mind. At that point I would just be out of luck. But that wasn't an issue for me-I was committed. So we got through it, and I went straight from there to talk to Personnel Commander Lieutenant Carr and we got all the paperwork rolling. Shortly thereafter-within days-Bertie Cooke gave me a call from the Background Unit saying she had my packet. We kind of laughed, and she said, "I'm looking at your background from almost 20 years ago that Anton Erickson did!" So I went through the background process and was treated very well. The city had me go do a physical agility, and I had to laugh. Retired Sergeant Randy Cardin was out there running it, at the regional academy-you've got to pay $100 to take that test now, by the way.
VANGUARD: That's what I hear.
RUFFNER: And so what cracked me up even more was there were all these kids out there who were half my age who didn't have any injuries, and they couldn't pass the test, which I thought was ridiculous. But this broken old man got through it and did just fine. Next thing I knew, Kirk Wilson called me up and said, "Hey, looks like they're going to give you a chance to ride with me for a couple weeks and get reacclimated to patrol." Lieutenant Ruben Chavez was the FTO Commander at the time, and he and I are friends from way back, so it worked out just great. They treated me with respect and character in the program. It was kind of more of a retread; I actually hadn't worked patrol since '94 I think. So a lot of stuff had changed, and I'm still getting readjusted a year later. I hooked up with some really great guys. My first team back I was working for a guy named Fabrice Bellini-good man. I partnered up with a guy named Matt Croucher-another good dude.
RUFFNER: Psycho man, but a true American hero. War veteran, many years with U.S. Special Forces and a good man. Very strong work ethic, good guy! I also say I worked for a guy named Steve Donohue, who was actually not my sergeant, but we worked closely together, and he's another good man.
VANGUARD: Big Red.
RUFFNER: Yup. Bob's Big Boy, Sonic... there's something else they call him-Johnny Neutron or something. I can't recall-I'll have to watch the Disney Channel with my kids to remember.
VANGUARD: He was one of chief's boys driving him around.
RUFFNER: Is that right?
VANGUARD: He enjoyed that job.
RUFFNER: I'm so happy and so thankful to be back. I've been approached about maybe doing a video notebook along the lines of a public awareness thing, similar to what Greg Weisner did about Hepatitis. The bottom line is, take the time to learn about the system. We're gung ho and we learn about becoming an expert in our job at the department to the point where we become instructors on the topic. But some of the stuff that's most important to us, we know nothing about. We go through the day, ignorantly, without thinking about it, and it's critical to know that for your own well-being and your family's well-being.
I always intended to write an open letter of thanks to either The Insider or The Vanguard and I never did. If you don't mind, I'd like to just offer up my thanks.
VANGUARD: I think this would be a great opportunity for you to be able to close the door on your past and move forward with this new fresh start!
RUFFNER: Well, first of all, I was touched and humbled by the fact you even wanted to talk to me, Juan. I thought who really wants to hear my story? But then after we talked on the phone I thought, you know what? Maybe it's the time, and it's a great way to close that chapter in my life and turn the page and move on.
Like I said earlier, there's no way I can name everyone. I'll no doubt forget someone. But there were so many people that helped us-all the guys on my motor team, and even the whole unit in general. Al Cavallo, Mike Mattocks, Eddie Marini, Mike and Karen Raybourn, Rudy and Kim Agerbeek, Scott and Rochelle Kennedy, Lt. Rick Botar, Mike Fehr, Lt. Dick Fairhurst, Joey and Shirin Schneider, Kirk Wilson, Joe Wicker, Russ Pacheco, Rich Daulton, Ed and Christine Zarate, Andy Layne, Glenn Bytheway, Paul Salerno, Bruce Raye, Mark Goings, Brian Daley, Ruben Chavez, Kevin Wrenn, Chaplains Dave Bridgen , Jim Becknall, Luan Nguyen, Chris Proft, Greg Wilkes, Bruce Young, Aurelio and Lucy Rodriguez, Mike Kihmm-all the guys were always there, and the list goes on. I don't have a prepared list, and I probably should have, and I don't mean to sound like a fool here, but just so many good, good people that were so THERE for me and my family. I have a grocery bag that I saved-it's full of cards and business cards and well-wishes from guys from other agencies, paramedics / firefighters that I had worked with, just so many well-wishers that were there for us. That's huge. I can't tell you how important that is to the recovery process. The department itself and the support they offered. I was treated like royalty on the way out, and on the way back. And I am forever indebted and forever grateful for that. My commitment for the rest of my life as a working police officer will be with this city and this department. Believe me, we all have issues. There isn't a job on the planet that doesn't have something you're going to bitch about. But I'm so appreciative to have what I have and I'm so glad to be here. I've talked with other guys from other agencies, and even coming back, I was talking with a buddy of mine from Santa Clara PD and he said straight-up, "I would have gotten zero seniority back. I would have had to start all over again." And I thought, are you kidding me? Granted, I had badge #4146 for a while. Thank God I got my #2889 and my seniority back. I don't know what to say other than, Thanks, guys. Thanks for the memories and thanks for the support, and here's to the future.
VANGUARD: This has been a great opportunity for all of us, and especially for me. Having been injured myself and having gone through everything, but I always kept a good attitude about life in general, and family always comes first.
VANGUARD: I think this was a great opportunity for you to talk about everything you've been through as well as your rehabilitation, the support of your friends and mostly the support of your wonderful wife, who basically was there through everything.
RUFFNER: You bet she was.
VANGUARD: It's a good time for you to close the book on the Old John and start a whole new book.
RUFFNER: I didn't realize that's where we were at, but that's a great way to put it.
VANGUARD: The experience you've had, the connections you have within this department and your work ethic just goes to prove why you're here today. I'm honored and proud to do this interview, and I want to thank you personally for allowing me this opportunity. Not too many people like to put themselves out there, but it's not all about you. It's about what you personally went through and going through the city and going through your rehab and surgeries-there are people in this department that have gone through that and have never come back from it. You are definitely an inspiration to officers and to others that will read this. It's proof that with good support and love and faith that comes with everything, it makes the road a little bit easier to travel while you're recuperating and trying to come back to work. I know you've been back about a year, and I personally want to welcome you back to the San José Police Department, and I see you doing another 15-20 years.
It's been an inspiration for me just to sit here and listen to you speak, and I didn't want to interrupt during the interview because I was in awe.
RUFFNER: Wow. Well, I appreciate that, and again I'm humbled to have been here, and I appreciate the opportunity and hopefully I didn't bore anybody to death here.
VANGUARD: No, you did not. And I think it's important because like I said, you hear about other issues that people have, but you never hear of someone going on disability and fighting his way back years later to get back to the love of his life which is being a cop-secondary to his wife, of course.
VANGUARD: It's unheard of. You have people running away from this job instead of running back to it. And that means a lot. It is a great job. It's the best job on the planet.
RUFFNER: I concur. It's a good gig.
VANGUARD: And you've got a great sergeant-Special Forces sergeant, and you've got Matt, and you're surrounded by a lot of heroes. I think your wife is a hero.
RUFFNER: She is indeed.
VANGUARD: And your kids are awesome.
RUFFNER: They are.
VANGUARD: So with that said, I want to thank you for sharing your life with us. I know it gets personal sometimes, but now we know a little more about John Ruffner and the stuff you've been through. So I just want to say thank you, and it's been an honor.
RUFFNER: Right on, brother. I appreciate that. Thanks buddy.