11/19/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

GI, bride celebrate 'miracle'

Wounded Wharton vet walks down aisle 14 months after injury


AUBURNDALE, Fla. --Army Spc. Jim Benoit stood up from his wheelchair, walked down the aisle with only a cane in his right hand and waited for his bride, Pamela Callahan.

At 4:52 p.m., with the sun beginning to set over the lake behind them, Benoit kissed his wife for the first time. Family and friends, including several members of his Army military police unit, watched the couple walk down the aisle together, completing a milestone that seemed impossible 14 months ago.

On Sept. 7, 2005, Benoit, a Wharton native, was severely wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. His backside had been shattered, and doctors said that if he even survived, he would never walk again.

"This is like a dream -- it still doesn't feel real," the bride, now Pamela Benoit, said afterward.

"It's very exciting. I kept thinking about the accident and how far he's come."

Smiling often and laughing with his friends, the usually stoic 24-year-old Benoit said he was calm until the instant he had to walk down the aisle. He was momentarily unnerved, but quickly put it behind him.

"I had sort of a new feeling -- I was never this confident of anything else -- not like I was about this. Everything just felt right," Benoit said.

Standing with his bride by a gazebo on the grounds of a 1933 estate, the two listened as Kathleen Koehler, who was responsible for their first introduction, sang "You Light Up My Life." Then, they exchanged their vows with the Rev. Doug Latta, a Methodist pastor, presiding.

Benoit went to put the wedding band on Pamela's hand and she, smiling, helped to keep him steady. The two continued to hold hands from that moment, through their first kiss and down the aisle.

"I haven't been this happy in so long," Benoit said later.

Benoit has spent the past year making remarkable strides at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When he first understood the extent of his injury he didn't think he could have a normal life, Benoit said. The support of his family and friends helped steel him through his recovery.

And Pamela, he said, stuck by him even after his injury left him permanently disabled.

The two met in January 2005, through friends who were dating. Benoit was scheduled to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty two days later. They talked some and agreed to exchange letters.

Pamela remembered her father, Thomas, a lieutenant in the Navy, saying that letters from home kept him grounded while serving overseas.

A romance began to blossom as the two exchanged letters for seven months.

Not even the improvised explosive device, or IED, that detonated underneath Benoit's 9,000-pound armored Humvee could destroy what was established. Two weeks after the explosion, Pamela was on a plane from Florida, where she attended college, to visit Benoit at Walter Reed.

"This girl came into his life and watched every bit of pain he's been through and she's still standing there," Benoit's older brother, David, said after the ceremony. "That's not someone you let go of."

David Benoit said Pamela was his brother's motivation. Benoit told his brother that when he's doing physical therapy, thoughts of Pamela are what push him.

Benoit said during the wedding reception that it started with her letters, when he was in Iraq. They were the best morale booster for him, he said.

Pamela, 21, said she is aware of Benoit's medical needs, but they don't scare her. He's gone through 79 surgeries in six months and his 80th surgery awaits them in January.

"I love him so much," she said. "It's just this feeling I have inside when he's with me. With everything he was going through, I still wanted to go to the hospital to see him -- that's how I knew."

Pamela's twin brother, Daniel, said he wasn't surprised at his sister's resilience.

"She's a very strong person. She always has been," Daniel Callahan said.

"She had preparation along the way," he said jokingly, referring to him and his older brother, Michael, teasing her when they were younger.

Debra Callahan, Pamela's mother, said her daughter watched her grandfather fight cancer for four years before he died, and Pamela was always willing to help.

"We want them to be happy and they know we're only a phone call away if they need any help," Debra Callahan said, echoing her husband, Thomas, who said the same hours earlier.

"They are going to be fine," Thomas Callahan said. "Both of them know all they have to do is pick up the phone if they need something."

For Missy Benoit, Jim's mother, the day was one proud moment after another.

Missy Benoit has been at her son's side since he was brought to Walter Reed.

She fought the surgeons who wanted to amputate his legs, saying it was not necessary.

Saturday was vindication for her.

"I was so proud just watching him stand there," Missy Benoit said. "He was always determined he'd walk down the aisle, using only a cane. He did it."

Not only did he walk, but Benoit also danced with his wife to the music of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," by Elton John. He also danced with his mother.

The words "amazing,""incredible" and "miracle" were used often by those attending the wedding.

"Everyone uses the word miracle when talking about Jim," said his childhood friend and best man, John Craven.

"People in the beginning didn't think he would live, but he and his mother always knew he would survive and he would walk."

David Benoit agreed, as they watched the couple posing together for photographs, sharing smiles.

"It's amazing. It's not something I would have thought about this time last year," said David Benoit, who recently was honorably discharged from the Army after also having served in Iraq. "This time last year he couldn't get out of a hospital bed."

Seeing Benoit enjoy his wedding day was especially emotional for Army Spc. Randall Oliver, 32, who served with Benoit both times in Iraq. During their first tour together, Oliver was Benoit's gunner.

The day Benoit was wounded, Oliver said he heard the explosion from the base. The convoy, en route to train Iraqi police, was a scant two miles from camp when they hit the IED.

That second tour in Iraq was scary, Oliver said. During the first tour, only two men in the unit -- the 64th MP Company, 720th MP Battalion -- were wounded. The second time around, Pfc. Timothy Hines was the first in their unit to be killed. He died a month after he was hit by an IED, the bombs the soldiers know are out there, but can't see until it's too late.

Then, Lt. Matthew Koutu was killed by a sniper. Then, Benoit was hit. After Benoit, Sgt. Julia Atkins was killed.

"It was random that day, who was chosen to go," Oliver said of the day Benoit was hit. "It could've been anybody in his squad."

Oliver said the unit is expecting to return to Iraq for a third tour. They've heard there is a good possibility that they'll return in May.

Meanwhile, Benoit's recovery has been good news for his fellow soldiers.

"It's good to see him alive," Oliver said. "They said he would never walk again. It's amazing. There are no words to really describe it. I love the kid."