ON 14 October 2009, I was driving home from the range in Phoenix around 1600 hours when my life was forever changed in less than one second.
For reasons still unexplained, my SUV suddenly swerved left into the oncoming traffic lane without any driver input. I was driving down a road with one lane going in each direction, divided by a double yellow line, and with a posted speed limit of 55 MPH.
I woke up on the side of the road, pinned in my vehicle, with large amounts of dust and other debris in the air. At first I thought I was having a dream, as everything seemed quite surreal. Looking back now, I had been knocked unconscious from the initial impact and deployment of my air bag. I slowly realized that I had been in a motor vehicle accident, but did not think it was that severe.
Then I felt moisture on my torso and upper legs, so I looked down and saw blood everywhere—specifically wet blood. At that point I noticed something odd in my lap. That “something odd” was my left forearm, and I was looking into it with bone, tendons, ligaments, veins, and arteries protruding. It was almost completely detached from my body, held on only by an extremely small amount of skin. My elbow was completely gone (it was lying on the pavement several feet away), and I could see a very small amount of my left shoulder when I continued taking in this rather interesting sight.
Let me explain the thought process my brain went through and why I considered this “interesting.” At first, my brain did not interpret these grievous injuries as negative or life threatening. I truly was amazed at what I saw, almost as though I were looking in on the damage through someone else’s eyes. It was as if I had responded to the accident myself and was evaluating patients for prioritization.
To put the story into proper perspective, I have spent my entire adult life learning and operating on the two-way range. At the tender age of 18, I was taken under the wing of a dangerous man who is a regular contributor to this magazine. He taught me almost everything I know about hurting people and breaking things, but more specifically he taught me how to survive. That man is Pat Rogers, and he always beat into my thick skull that getting injured on the two-way range is a fact of life. There is no way to avoid it if your time is up, but that does not mean you will die. You have to suck it up, fight through it, and finish the evolution no matter what happens. Little did I know how important those lessons would become.
I have been to some extremely prestigious fighting schools, had quite a bit of mental conditioning training at them, and am now an instructor at one. I say this to explain that I considered myself prepared for the worst-case scenario. During my career as a peace officer, I was in numerous violent physical fights, was forced to shoot for blood, and took first place—yet I was never seriously injured on the job. I was forced to medically retire due to my patellar tendon being severed by a suspect’s tooth during a physical confrontation, but even this was of no major consequence during the fight in question.
Now that you understand my frame of mind and how I look at life, let’s get back to the motor vehicle accident.
After I had taken in the injuries to my arm, I snapped out of the trance I had been in due to being knocked unconscious. I realized that, in addition to my arm being mangled, my left leg would not move. The collision had caused the front end of my vehicle to crush inward on my legs, which in turn both pinned and crushed my left leg.
About this time, the first patrol deputy arrived on scene. I will never forget the look on his face when he saw the extent of my injuries, but to his credit, he kept his cool and tried his best to keep me calm. I quickly told him my name, home phone number, where my ID was located, that I was a retired LEO with a concealed firearm, and that I thought I was about to pass out. I did in fact pass out, and when I woke up, everything had changed—and not for the better.
I awoke to find myself having great difficulty focusing on any one specific thing. My senses were completely overwhelmed as I was surrounded by fire and EMS personnel yelling at one another. I was told by the primary paramedic (you know who you are and you are the man!) not to move, that he was about to start an IV on me, and to hang in there. I then asked him, “My left arm is gone, isn’t it?” He responded truthfully with a, “Yeah man, your arm is gone, but you hang in there. We’re going to get you out of here and on a helo ASAP. Stay with me, Ben.”
Some people might think what he said was not a good idea, and that he should have blown smoke up my rear end. But for me, honesty was the best choice he could have made because that was the first instant my brain realized I needed to fight. I began thinking I was not going to die today in this damn vehicle on the side of some middle-ofnowhere road.
Then two things happened in rapid succession. First was that fire crews began to extricate me from the vehicle, which was a major ordeal as I had collided with a large panel truck. The second was that the pain of my injuries suddenly hit all at once.
Webster’s Dictionary defines pain as “localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (as a disease or an injury); also: a basic bodily sensation induced by a noxious stimulus, received by naked nerve endings, characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leading to evasive action.”
Since we are all onboard with the meaning of the word pain now, all I can say is that oh my dear Lord, did I feel some severe pain. My surgeon uses a one to ten scale for pain, with one being non-existent and ten being the worst possible pain you can imagine. The pain from my arm injury was an eleven.
Seriously, my pain really did exceed the one to ten scale. I can only describe it as turning the oven up to 500 degrees, having someone smack you in the arm several times with a sledgehammer, and then shoving your arm into the preheated oven. The pain in my arm completely overshadowed any discomfort from my leg. This is the point when all of the mental conditioning I had received in the past paid off—in spades.
I used to play the “what if” game with myself, always thinking about potential problems associated with being shot, cut, stabbed, beaten up, etc. That being said, having my arm torn from my body was not on that list! I was in serious trouble and needed to focus on the task at hand. That single task was pure and simple survival.
My mind suddenly pegged on my wife. I must make it back to see my wife! This situation is not ending with my fellow LEOs notifying my wife that I bled to death on some dusty road.
That is exactly what I needed. I used that pure raw emotion and anger to suck up the pain and fight through the massive blood loss. Suddenly I felt as though I was going to pass out again, and I knew that could have dire consequences. I tried to focus on my wife and fight through the pain, and kept telling myself I was not going to die today.
Approximately 45 minutes later, I was extricated from the vehicle and placed in an awaiting helo. Next thing I knew, I was being rushed into a Level 1 Trauma Center and surrounded by MDs and RNs who seemed as though they all had a rhythm with one another. There was no wasted motion or conversation among any of them. I was finally able to relax the grip I had kept while fighting to survive in that mangled vehicle. I was comforted by a voice that said, “You are going to be ok now. We have you, Ben. Just relax.”
I woke up three days later in Trauma ICU with my wife, father and my wife’s parents sitting around me. I remembered the crash and then I remembered the injury to my arm. I asked my father if my arm was gone, and he said it had been completely traumatically amputated at the scene. My father is an Emergency Room MD with over 35 years’ experience, and I had never seen him look this concerned, but he kept it together for my benefit. My wife and her parents did the same, as they didn’t want me to see fear on their faces.
The hardest fight of my life began the minute I awoke in ICU that day, but I never would have been able to adapt to this challenge without the support of my family, close friends, and especially my wife Erin. As of this writing, I just hit surgery number 38 related to this incident. I am also now part of a military experimental prosthetics program due to the severity of my amputation. I represent absolute worst-case amputation because of how high my arm was taken.
The cause of my motor vehicle accident may never be known, but some details are quite clear. My left arm was resting on top of the driver’s side door and against the closed window. The impact of the first collision caused the door glass to break and my arm to be sucked out the window. The truck worked its way down the driver’s side of my vehicle, which tore my outstretched arm off and then spit my forearm back into my lap. Lesson? Do not drive with your arm resting on top of the door. As we all know and should do, wear your seatbelt. I had several injuries due to the seatbelt, but it kept me from being ejected from the vehicle.
The purpose of this article is to show that you have to suck it up and drive on no matter what happens. Focus on the task at hand and deal with it. Just because you took a round to the arm, leg, testicle, whatever, does not mean you will die. Fight through the pain. Get angry and harness that emotion to your advantage. Do you have someone you care greatly for? Focus on seeing that person again. Do whatever is necessary to survive. Do not quit until the MD puts you under for surgery.
The photo shows my injuries in great detail. I wanted the readership to see them so you understand that I fought through massive blood loss and almost unimaginable pain. But I survived a horrendous injury that my surgeons said was not survivable. Am I superhuman? No. I’m just a regular guy who was forced into a terrible situation and prevailed. So can you!
I have since been told I’m a hard m***** f***** and while I appreciate the compliment from my Maritime-oriented friends in Dam Neck, the true credit lies with that one most important lesson from that dangerous man I spoke of. Fight through it.
To all those going downrange either here or OCONUS, stay safe and remember to fight through it!