FORSYTH -- Jeff Wilson grew up in Riverdale playing cops and robbers, wanting to be the good guy.
A little more than five years ago, his childhood dream came true at age 38 when he pinned on a Monroe County sheriff’s deputy badge.
Even with all the bad guys lurking out there, he did not dwell on the dangers a gunman could pose. Deputies were much more likely to be injured in a car accident rushing to a scene, he thought.
On Sept. 13 while answering a call about a man threatening suicide, Wilson was shot three times. Deputy Michael Norris, who was ahead of him in the line of fire, was fatally wounded in the head.
“I went out that day, and I never thought this would have happened,” Wilson said. “But it is part of our job description. You have to be ready for it.”
Wilson was wearing a protective vest that stopped one of the bullets that night. He felt a burning in his abdomen as he was hit to the left of his belly button. The heat of the impact singed his skin and bruised his side and back. Another bullet went through the front of his right thigh and a third went in his left buttock and out the right side.
“I got Forrest Gumped,” Wilson joked about the movie character who was awarded a Purple Heart for a wound in the backside. “My million dollar wound, it’s just rough to sit, period.”
Wilson goes to therapy three times a week and recently put down the crutches to walk on his own.
He favors his right leg, putting more weight on the left, which hurts his knees that sometimes buckle. Damage to his abdominal muscles makes it difficult to bend down and get up.
“It’s coming a day at a time,” said the 43-year-old father of four. “I actually feel like I’m getting better faster than I thought I would, and I’m sure that’s to do with all the prayers I’ve been getting. ... I almost feel them when they’re calling them at night, and I get to feeling better. I really do.”
Wilson was not well enough to stand and salute Norris’ caisson-drawn casket during the procession through the downtown square last month.
Instead, he was wheeled to the memorial service at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center.
“I try not to cry much, but that really tore me up,” Wilson said. “All those people standing up and applauding me. That was an exceptional feeling I’ll never forget.”
In the weeks since the shooting, he has reflected on the 24-year-old Norris. They both lived in Culloden and often passed on the highway as Wilson was ending his night shift and Norris was coming in.
They’d flash their lights, honk horns and tell each other to slow down.
“It was quite funny really, at times,” Wilson said. “He was a good guy, and he was very dedicated. He was going to be, I’m pretty sure, within a year or two, our superstar deputy. He had a good sense of humor. He loved to get out there and try to catch the bad guys.
“For some unknown reason, I’m pretty sure it was Michael who saved my life that day, even though he lost his. I believe him being in front, I’m pretty sure, he gave me the chance to return fire, and I hated that he had to lose his life like that.”
It was not easy attending the funeral.
“As bad as I hurt and was hurting, I felt obligated to be there to show my respect to him,” Wilson said.
‘A LOT OF LOVE’
The whole community rallied behind the sheriff’s office in the wake of the shooting.
Blue ribbons sprang up everywhere, and cards and letters poured in.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wilson said. “I still cut up with some of my guys on my shift. They say every time they go out to a call, they have to get a hug first before they can go in to do their job. That just shows there’s a lot of love in this county.”
Wilson is anxious to get back to work, hopefully by the middle of next month.
His zest for the job has not changed since the shooting, but he is different.
“I know I’m a lot more cautious,” he said. “You know, I keep trying to think of how things can go different. But when you answer these calls, it’s always a call for service. You’re out there to help, regardless. Sometimes the help isn’t wanted, especially from some of the people like this gentleman. He obviously wanted some help, but he didn’t want to go about it in the right way.”
Christopher Keith Calmer, 46, is accused of opening fire on the deputies, but little has been released about the incident during the GBI investigation.
Wilson said he has nothing to say to the Calmer family right now.
Instead, he’s concentrating on recovery while being grateful for the support of strangers, friends and family -- especially his wife, Donna.
“She’s been my rock through this whole thing,” he said. “Every now and then I’d catch her in the corner breaking down, realizing how it could have been much worse.”
The small town community he fell in love with more than 10 years ago has never shone brighter in his eyes.
“I hope the love continues throughout, all our brothers and sisters,” he said.
The worst part is not having Norris here to share it.
“I know he’s in a better place, and he’s looking down and seeing everything that’s going on, but I wish he could feel the love that has come through Monroe County and just see how his wife, Logan, is just surrounded by love.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.