Orange Park, FL – Most law enforcement officers who are wounded in the line of duty would prefer that nobody – especially their families - ever see the way they looked during the crucial first moments after they were shot.
But one federal agent, shot five times in a grocery store parking lot during his on-duty lunch break, wants to show the world just such a picture with the intent of raising awareness for an organization that has contributed greatly to his recovery.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Aviation Enforcement Agent Drew Stokes was wearing a uniform t-shirt that said “CBP Federal Agent” on the back and his duty weapon in a shoulder holster when he stopped to pick up lunch at a Clay County Publix on Sept. 26, 2017, according to WTLV.
He was returning to his vehicle in the parking lot when he heard someone say “I f--king hate cops.”
Agent Stokes told Blue Lives Matter that he dropped his groceries on the ground as the person opened fire on him.
He was shot five times.
One bullet tore into the right side of his rib cage, went through his liver, and stopped at his spine. Another went in through his right butt cheek and up through is body and then through his hip. He took yet another bullet in his right hip.
The fourth bullet went all the way through his left leg and the fifth bullet passed in and out of his left forearm.
“I had two tourniquets and seven holes in my body,” Agent Stokes told Blue Lives Matter. “I tried to get up and chase him but two bystanders pushed me down and told me he’d already shot himself.”
The agent explained that his attacker had been an emotionally-disturbed 18-year-old man who had just been notified that he had a narcotics warrant.
He said the gunman called his girlfriend and said he was going to shoot another drug dealer or kill a cop, and then moments later, he opened fire on the CBP agent in the parking lot.
Then the gunman turned his weapon and shot himself in the head. His vehicle stopped when it crashed into cars parked on the other side of the parking lot.
Clay County Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Hawkins, then an 18-year veteran of his department, was the first to arrive on the scene in the Publix parking lot.
Deputy Hawkins told Blue Lives Matter that when he arrived, he initially pulled up next to the gunman’s vehicle, which had crashed into several cars.
He said witnesses advised him that the shooter was dead and pointed him towards Agent Stokes on the other end of the parking lot.
Deputy Hawkins ran to aid the fallen officer.
Coincidentally, and fortuitously, the deputy told Blue Lives Matter he had just attended a refresher course at a tactical medicine school and he put those skills to work that fall day.
“I ran across the parking lot and saw Drew on the ground,” Deputy Hawkins described the scene. “Citizens had gathered around and were using paper towels to try to stop the bleeding. One guy – a veteran I think - had applied some quick-clot through the hole in the uniform shirt on Drew’s back, but it didn’t actually make its way into the wound.”
“I laid down beside [Agent Stokes] and told him who I was and said I was there to help him out, and then I started assessing his injuries,” the deputy explained. “I wasn’t sure if he was armed or what, and I didn’t want to startle him.”
He said Agent Stokes was fading in and out at the point, and he talked to him and tried to keep him awake.
“I introduced myself and said ‘hey man, we’re going to get through this. You’re good. Rescue is on the way. We got you taken care of,’” Deputy Hawkins recalled. “I was just trying to reassure him and keep him talking so he wouldn’t become unconscious.”
The deputy told Blue Lives Matter he tried to feel for all of the wounded officer’s injuries. He said he was sort of relieved when he found the holes where the bullet had passed in and out of his arm.
At that point, he said other deputies were arriving on the scene so he asked someone for a tourniquet and sent someone else to get the medic bag in his police vehicle parked over by the dead gunman.
That’s when he lifted up Agent Stokes’ uniform shirt and saw blood spurting from a hole in the agent’s back.
That wound, the deputy later learned, was where the bullet had torn through the CBP agent’s liver.
“I knew I had to try to stop that bleeding,” Deputy Hawkins told Blue Lives Matter. “So I stuck my finger in the hole in his back to control the bleeding.”
He said his method was painful but effective.
“That woke him up for sure,” the deputy said. “He almost did a complete push up with me sitting on his back. A few minutes later, I got my medic bag and I was able to put a chest seal on him.”
Deputy Hawkins described it as a “surreal moment.”
“It was almost like I reverted right back to training,” he explained. “Even though it was a crazy chaotic scene, you’ve got a wounded officer and his assailant dead on the other side of the parking lot, but with Drew and I in that moment, it was calm.”
And that exact moment was the one captured in the picture that Agent Stokes decided to share with the world.
“I think it puts us in our place and lets us know this is really going on. This is real life,” said retired Lodi Police Captain Chris Jacobson, the co-program manager of Task Force Sentinel (TFS), which is part of Operation Enduring Warrior (OEW). “It’s the reality that the public never sees.”
OEW is a non-profit that works to help wounded military and law enforcement veterans reclaim their lives after being injured in a critical incident.
“I like that he’s releasing that picture. It’s not a canned photo like you usually see of a wounded cop giving a thumbs up as he’s coming out of the hospital or with a flag in a Class A uniform,” Jacobson explained. “We’re seeing him fight for his life, and people fighting to save him in that photo.”
“It’s real life. It’s people fighting to save him and him fighting to save himself. And nobody quit. Our organization is all about that – not quitting,” he said.
Agent Stokes said he benefited from the TFS programs, especially the Masked Athlete Team, while he was recovering from his multiple gunshot wounds.
For that program, a group of volunteers wearing gas masks helps a wounded soldier or law enforcement officer complete a Spartan race, even if they have to carry the participant through it.
They wear the masks for two reasons, Jacobson explained.
First, so that they cannot be identified and so the focus stays on the wounded warrior doing the race.
And second, because it’s hot and it’s difficult to complete a race while wearing a gas mask, it reminds the volunteers that they can’t quit because their wounded participant cannot quit.
“I can take the mask off – they cannot. This is what they’re going through every second of their lives,” Jacobson explained.
Agent Stokes said he hoped releasing the picture of him at his worst moment would help attract more attention to the mission of Operation Enduring Warrior and its law enforcement arm, Task Force Sentinel.
The agent, who has served with CBP since 2007, said he is still in the midst of his recovery and relies on support from OEW to help him reach his goals.
Agent Stokes said he hoped the picture of him with a deputy literally plugging the gunshot holes with his hands would be a reality check and would inspire supporters of law enforcement to contribute to the efforts of OEW.
After this picture was taken, the agent was transported to the hospital where he died twice and was given 19 trauma units of blood as doctors fought desperately to save him.
Three of the bullets are lodged in places where they cannot be removed, so the wounded agent will carry them for the rest of his life.
Agent Stokes said he pushed himself hard to return to duty six months after he was shot, but that he went back too early and has since had to go back on medical leave to finish healing.
He said OEW and its programs helped him realized that he didn’t need to impress anybody.
Agent Stokes said that working with OEW and TFS “has made me realize that I’m not okay physically and it’s okay to take the time to heal properly.”
He said it taught him that he didn’t need to rush back to impress everyone and prove his toughness.
“Being part of OEW doesn’t mean that you are completely healed, but that you are in a community that is pushing to help you get better. They are a phenomenal organization that found me exactly when I needed them,” Agent Stokes said.
If you want to make a contribution to help wounded veterans and law enforcement officers recover emotionally from their injuries, click here to donate directly to the OEW programs.