Nearly 24 years ago I met a 16-year-old boy named Jeff Wolfgang, who stole my heart. I was only 15 myself. We were both too shy to even talk to each other. We just looked from afar. It took our friends doing the talking for us to give him the courage to come over and say hello from across the hillside where we sat eating lunch. It was a brief conversation with only a few words spoken but he had a light in his eyes and a spark in his smile that made me feel something I had never felt before. It was soon after that encounter I left a little note on the windshield of his truck with my phone number hoping he would call. And so our journey began.
We were just kids but the conversation about hopes, dreams, fears, and everything else was so easy. It was like we had known each other forever. He came from a law enforcement family but didn’t see that being his career path. He had always dreamed of being a pilot and felt the need to pursue it. Fast forward, we both graduated and worked on pursuing the dreams we talked about for endless hours. He never did anything halfway, he was all in and always excelled at what he put his mind to, including his proposal! He completely surprised me on our fifth dating anniversary, in front of family and friends, when he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. He had planned a big engagement celebration to follow that evening. Everyone knew except for me. It was a magical night. I will never forget going home to the little camping trailer we were living in at the time to save money for flight school and practicing our wedding day kiss. We eventually got married and moved away from our hometown so he could complete his degree at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. His dreams became our dreams.
Jeff excelled yet again at Embry Riddle. He was one of a select few chosen for an internship with American Airlines during his senior year. I was so proud of him. That same year our lives were changed forever when we got a call that his dad had a heart attack shortly after he got off duty that day. Bob was 52 years old and was looking forward to his upcoming retirement from the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Department after serving 32 years. It shook our world and reminded us the toll on one’s health a career in law enforcement can take. Despite all this, Jeff achieved his dream of obtaining a career with the airlines.
When a dream isn’t all you thought it would be it takes courage to walk away. Post September 11th a career in the airlines was not all it was cracked up to be. While he absolutely loved flying, he did not love not knowing if he would have a job the next day, little pay, no benefits and being away from me, our little guy and baby number two on the way. I was scared to death when he decided to quit flying but he did it to provide better life for our family. Many people would have stayed in a miserable situation for fear of the unknown but he took the leap, which is one of the many reasons I love him.
The leap of faith lead to Jeff finding his true calling. In all reality he pursued his career in law enforcement for stability for our family however, he found his passion in serving his community, trying to make a difference and standing beside his brothers and sisters doing the same. His dad would be so proud of the man he became both personally and professionally. I was so proud to watch him graduate number one in his academy class. It was during this time I watched the boy I fell in love with become the man he was always meant to be. The best part about the process was falling in love with him all over again.
With Jeff’s new career we gained additional family. While Jeff had his brothers and sisters he stood beside everyday and would lay down his life for, I too found a sisterhood only those who are married to the uniform can fully understand. We understand the necessary sacrifices and love our spouses more for having the courage to make them. We understand being a single parent half, if not more of the time is part of the deal. We understand holidays can’t always be celebrated on the day of. We understand this is more than a career. It is truly a calling. We understand the toll it can take on the body, the mind and relationships. We also understand the pride of wearing the badge and kissing the one who does. I am forever grateful to kiss a man who will always bleed blue.
Our hero. To our boys and I, Jeff hung the moon and still does. There was nothing he could not do. We loved to hear the crazy stories he would share. We would stay up late or get up early to greet him, and hear the events of his day or night. The boys would wrestle with him and pretend to arrest him. When Jeff was not around they would wear his boots and old uniforms and play cops & robbers. When you asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up the response was always the same, a cop just like dad!
As all stories go, there are highs and there are lows. I will never forget talking to Jeff on the phone one night while he was at work. He wasn’t feeling well but refused to leave work. Shortly after we hung up from that call, he made a traffic stop that forever changed our lives. It turned out to be a stolen vehicle but dispatch made a human mistake and said it was clear and current. By the time he had all the information he was already engaging the suspect. It’s like cornering a tiger. Jeff stood between this already convicted felon, gang member and his freedom. Jeff was struck by the stolen vehicle on the left side of his body as the suspect in the car tried to run him down. The vehicle then hit Jeff’s patrol car just right and drove up over the hood and landed on the other side and took off. Jeff was running on pure adrenaline, hopped into his patrol car and pursed the stolen vehicle. The pursuit eventually turned into a foot chase, then physical fight before backup arrived. Jeff rolled off the top of the suspect and could not stand on his own. This night was the beginning of the end.
The surgeons told Jeff his career was over and he needed back surgery right away. Jeff was determined to stay on duty, doing every procedure he could to avoid having his back fused because he knew it would end his career. Before the end, he would literally fall over in the middle of the grocery store and other random places because his left leg would give out on him. Then one night his lieutenant saw him fall out of his patrol car when his leg gave out. He had no choice but to have Jeff seek treatment. After multiple procedures, nerve blocks, nerve ablations, a discectomy surgery, and powering through, fusing his back was no longer optional. Four days before his back was fused the city he worked for medically retired him.
You would think that lying in a hospital bed in your living room being completely dependent on your wife to do everything for you, from helping you simply get up, to going to the bathroom and bathing, would be the most challenging part of this journey. However, the mental and emotional challenge of losing a career that had come to define his very existence far exceeded the physical adversity. He would lay there watching the news and all the anti-law enforcement protests taking place in our country and be angered to tears. Most of all, angry he was not out there by his brothers and sisters side, still making a difference. He was broken in every way and lost himself.
As you might imagine, this chapter in our lives shook us to our very core, both individually and as a couple. With the right help and never ending support from family and friends we came out the other side, stronger for where we had been. The question for Jeff was what is next? How do you move on from a career that gave you purpose? Anything else felt like settling.
“Through life’s greatest challenges we have found our strength.”
My background was in real estate and I suggested he join me. His response was “no way!” (That is putting it mildly.) However, when we discussed focusing on “his people” and finding a way to give back he began to listen.
From this Honor The Brave was born. It began as a service we offered our local clients that were current or previous law enforcement, military or fire when buying or selling real estate. As a gratitude for their service we would rebate 10% of the commission and donate an additional 5% to the non-profit of their choice that benefits law enforcement, military or fire in some capacity. Fast forward to 2017 we decided to create a nationwide platform so we can benefit as many of our nation’s brave men and women as possible. We now consult clients across the country and align them with our amazing Honor The Brave partners when they buy or sell real estate. If these brave men and women are going to buy or sell, we want them to be thanked for their service and benefit a nonprofit they believe in. It has been so rewarding to align with great people who are as passionate about giving back to our Brave as we are. The best part is that it keeps us close to our LEO, military and first responder family.
Through this journey, I too, have found my purpose. Without going through the challenges we have overcome I don’t know if I would truly have appreciated each day the way I do. I know love like I may never have known it. Jeff recently told me, “This is the first time since losing my career that I feel like I have purpose again. The best part is we get to to it together.” My heart is full again and the boy I watched become a man still has my heart.
– Zanna Wolfgang