Gets Hansen on the Road Again
Justin Hansen ’99 knew he had found his true calling from the moment he put on the uniform of a Wisconsin State Trooper.
Justin Hansen graduated from Winona State University, served in the Army, and worked for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections before joining the Wisconsin State Patrol in 2011. The career change came late in life, at age 33, but it was a perfect fit for the Brookfield, Wis., native, whose goals and values had always drawn him to law enforcement and community service.
“Once I got out on the road, I felt at home. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Hansen told his hometown newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Not even a horrific accident that crushed his right leg and nearly cost him his life could keep Hansen out of a patrol car, where he knew he belonged. The recovery was long and often excruciating, and gave him moments of doubt, but on Nov. 8, 2015, wearing a prosthetic leg below his right knee, Hansen returned to full active duty as a trooper.
“I treat every day of my life as a blessing from God, because it is,” Hansen said. “I am not guaranteed tomorrow, so make the most out of today. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I hope my children can always look to me for inspiration and guidance as they handle challenges and hardships throughout their lives.”
Hansen grew up in Brookfield, Wis., and visited Winona State University at the urging of a close friend, Jason Michalak ’99. Hansen was immediately convinced it was where he wanted to spend the next four years.
“I was excited to get far enough away from my hometown to start a new chapter of my life, but close enough that I could still come home on weekends if I wanted to,” Hansen said. “My time at WSU was an amazing and exciting experience and I always smile when I think of it.”
Hansen, like so many WSU students, loved spending time hiking the bluffs, camping on the river, rollerblading around the lakes, playing softball and hanging out with friends. He took his studies as seriously as his social life, but it took a few tries to zero in on criminal justice as his major.
“I didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do with my career, I just wanted to get an education,” he said. “I was going along with the flow my first year-and-a-half or so and I changed my major three times. I took an intro to criminal justice course and started to gain a lot of interest in it.”
After graduating from WSU Hansen enlisted in the Army and served in the military police at Fort Hood. That led him to the Department of Corrections and a job as a probation and parole officer. He put in six years there before applying to the State Patrol.
“I found the work fit my personality perfectly,” he said.
Hansen was patrolling Hwy. 41 near Menasha in northeastern Wisconsin during a snowstorm on Jan. 25, 2014, when he stopped to assist two cars that had spun out. Hansen opened the trunk of his patrol car for orange cones to warn other motorists when another vehicle, coming from behind, lost control and struck Hansen, pinning him between the two cars.
“When I regained consciousness after the injury I had zero feeling below my waist,” Hansen recalled. “I was lying face down inside the trunk of my squad and felt someone holding a pressure dressing on my head and could feel blood covering my face. I thought I was paralyzed and would never walk again. As the shock wore off, the pain took over. It was a pain I could never describe.”
Hansen said he realized then that he might die from his injuries.
“I prayed like I had never prayed before. I swore I could be content never walking again if I could just see my children one more time.”
Hansen, who had been assisted by sheriff’s deputies and a driver of one of the cars he’d stopped to help, was rushed to the hospital. Emergency-room doctors saved his life, but his right leg below the knee was lost, his left leg broken, and he had severe cuts and bruises over most of his body.
The long road to recovery
The challenges were just beginning. Hansen spent a total of 19 days in the hospital and recalls never sleeping more than two hours a night. Despite being given 10 different types of medications, the pain was almost unbearable.
“The recovery process was brutal,” Hansen said. “The hardest part was pretending that I wasn’t in a world of pain and that everything was OK, just to keep my boys from worrying any more than they already were. I stayed positive because of the strength of my family and friends. The outpouring of support from my local community and law enforcement community across the nation helped keep me motivated, too.”
Hansen’s first steps toward full recovery came in March 2014, two months after the accident, when he took his first steps on his prosthetic leg. He was awarded a Purple Heart and returned to work for the State Patrol later in the year on an accident recovery team, collecting and entering data, but was determined to get back on the road as a trooper.
On March 24, 2015, Wisconsin State Trooper Trevor Casper was shot and killed in the line of duty during a bank robbery in Fond du Lac, Wis. Hansen had met Casper a few times and decided to “push myself to my limits to honor him.”
Returning to duty
The Wisconsin State Patrol has no restrictions on troopers with prosthetic limbs, as long as they are able to meet the fitness requirements. Hansen not only wanted to meet the requirements, but go well beyond. He recruited a fellow trooper to push him through self-defense drills, and made sure he was re-trained on firearms.
Hansen said it was important to him to be fully ready to return to active duty. And in November 2015, he did, going solo after four training rides with another trooper. He drives a patrol car fitted to accommodate his left foot for the accelerator and is back working in northeastern Wisconsin, based in Appleton.
Hansen’s story of recovery caught the attention of state and local media. He received words of encouragement from Governor Scott Walker and was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game.
It was not about recognition for Hansen, just returning to the profession he feels called to and serving as a positive example to his three teenage sons. He credits his family, including parents James and Judith, his faith, the memory of Trooper Casper, and his fellow officers for guiding him through his incredibly difficult ordeal.
“No matter how hard things are or whatever life throws at you, obstacles or challenges, you just have to maintain faith and know there is always someone you can reach out to. Don’t ever give up on yourself.”