MODESTO -- Officer Michael Rokaitis, who nearly lost his life when shot twice in the line of duty in August 2021, returned to work Monday after more than a year of recovery.
The street gang-unit cop prides himself in being an officer for the past eight years in his hometown. The Modesto Police Department feels like family to Rokaitis. He watched his own father serve for 21 years in the same police force growing up.
"I just thought that was the coolest thing, it's exactly what I wanted to do," Rokatis told CBS13.
Following in his dad's footsteps has meant to world to Rokaitis. After all, it's the only job he applied to after graduating college, joining the gang unit after serving on patrol for three years, like his father.
The dangers of the job are known well by an officer's son-turned-officer himself. But the thought of being nearly killed while on duty is something a cop can grow numb to, Rokaitis admits.
"I knew that it was a dangerous job and it could happen," he said.
A distant fear would become reality for Rokaitis when
He and his team got a call that a fellow officer was in pursuit of a suspect on a motorcycle that lead to a house in the 3100 block of East Orangeburg Avenue. Rokaitis and other officers arrived, and soon after the suspect exited the house and surrendered.
They got a search warrant to check the home, suspecting further criminal activity. Rokaitis is heard on bodycam video released by Modesto Police alerting anyone still inside the home to come out.
As the team of officers go inside to make sure the scene is safe, Rokaitis opens the door to the last room in the home and begins to slowly walk in. He is met with immediate gunfire.
Rapid gunfire from a shootout with a man barricaded in the last room can be heard on the footage as an officer calls out, "Man down! Man down!" in reference to Rokaitis.
"There was no time to react. The rounds hit and then it was time to get me to a hospital," said Rokaitis.
He was struck once in the chest and once just below his protective vest in the abdomen. Rokaitis remembers it vividly.
"I was absolutely terrified. It felt like getting hit by a baseball bat in my stomach," he said.
Bodycam video shows his fellow officers immediately stepping in to help.
"I've got you buddy," one can be heard saying as they tend to Rokaitis on the floor outside the bedroom, now bleeding heavily.
Brothers and sisters in blue then load one of their own into the patrol car and rush him to the hospital.
"The only other thing on my mind was my wife and daughter. That was the most important thing for me in that moment," said Rokaitis.
After several surgeries, Rokaitis was in a medically induced coma for two weeks. He awoke to the news that the bullet to his abdomen hit an artery in his right leg. Doctors had no choice but to amputate the leg to save his life.
"I didn't think much about losing a leg. I was happy to be alive," said Rokaitis about learning the news. "I was happy just to be waking up. In the moment, in the hospital, I was just thinking about how quickly can I get home. I want to get out of this hospital bed, I want to be home, I want to be with my family."
Heading home weeks later, Rokaitis was met with a long line of supporters cheering him on as he began the long road to recovery.
Learning to use a wheelchair, and then starting over once again learning to use his new prosthetic leg, was a challenge. Especially so for a dad whose off-duty job includes chasing around a toddler. But he remained positive and determined to get back on his feet, and back in uniform.
"I try not to dwell too much on the stuff that's tough and I look at it as being a new adventure and new challenges," said Rokatis.
More than a year after the ambush shootout, on Monday, Nov. 28, Rokaitis returned to work at the Modesto Police Department, met by cheers once again from co-workers that are more like family.
"I couldn't complete this entire journey in recovery without coming back and giving it my best shot," said Rokaitis.
Policework in a new way -- this time behind the scenes.
"It's opened my mind to new possibilities in a different type of work, you know?" said Rokaitis.
He is serving his community once again and learning how along the way. He's working 15 hours a week at the station, hoping to build back up to full-time.
"If I'm having a bad day I remind myself of how much worse it could be," said Rokaitis.
With his future in policework uncertain, Rokaitis said this new chapter is being written one day at a time. He will give it his all, and if the time comes he has to hang up his hat, he will find a new way to serve his community with a smile -- knowing he chose strength in the face of despair.
"The worst thing you can do when tragedy strikes is to let that tragedy define you for the rest of your life," said Rokaitis. "I think one of the biggest decisions I made early on is not to let this follow me around for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be defined by the bad that happened to me."
He hopes his story will inspire others to do the same.
Officers detained and arrested the alleged gunman, Jesse James Brooks of Modesto, on the scene after the shootout in August 2021.
He is being held without bail in the Stanislaus County Jail, charged with weapons violations and attempted murder of a police officer. His next court date is in January 2023.
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