Welcome home, Jim Benoit
'Fighting Knight' injured in Iraq gets loving greeting at Morris Hills
Courtesy of the Daily Record
The atmosphere at Morris Hills High School this week reminded teachers of the build-up to Christmas. The anticipation and excitement swelled each day, and students kept repeating: "When is he going to be here?"
Their gift arrived on Thursday at noon, when Army Spc. Jim Benoit appeared on campus, stood in their classroom and took a walk down the hallway.
Accompanied by his mother and girlfriend, Benoit arrived at Morris Hills, his alma mater, to spontaneous applause from students and staff, and a banner hanging over the entrance reading, "Welcome Home James -- Our Fighting Knight."
Inside, a surprise birthday party with stars-and-stripes balloons and cupcakes was planned. Benoit, who grew up in Wharton, was home for the first time since September, when he was severely wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. And, it was his 24th birthday.
"Here is the man of the hour and he sat over there at that desk," said Judi Ricucci, his former teacher, presenting him to a classroom packed with 70 people and more spilling into the hallway. "We are here for you next year and for always."
They sang "Happy Birthday"to Benoit, a Class of 2001 graduate, and had him blow out candles lighted in cupcakes baked by Morris Hills teachers.
The tense emotions that teachers and students said they carried all year, having followed Benoit's sometimes touch-and-go recovery since school opened, were finally released on Thursday, the last day of classes.
"I'm amazed, impressed and honored," said Lisa Klepp, who taught Benoit during his freshman year. "He doesn't say much, but his inner determination has him standing now and you know that's what saved him. It's overwhelming for me."
Over the past 10 months, a committee of students and Benoit's former teachers channeled those nervous energies into fundraising for him.
Initially, they wanted to raise $2,001, marking the year he graduated. On Thursday, a sign on the door of Ricucci's classroom bore the sum of $20,810. That number was crossed out, however, replaced with a later tally of $21,810.
But even that number was no longer accurate. By that morning, another two checks had arrived -- bringing the total to more than $22,000. One was a donation of $500 from the high school's junior class, Ricucci said.
"I didn't expect that kind of reaction from the kids," Benoit said a day later. "It was pretty overwhelming. I definitely was glad to meet all the people who are supporting me."
Benoit is known to his teachers as quiet, but possessing a steely determination. He showed that off standing for nearly 30 minutes and taking a walk down the hallway. Benoit was largely speechless while students approached to shake his hand, check out his tattoos and tell him how much he meant to them.
"I just want to really thank you for what you did for us and this country," said Chris Trosky, 18, of Wharton.
Trosky said he wasn't sure how much he raised for Benoit, but he had gone from one company to the next in Rockaway, asking for donations. A group of 90 students worked throughout the school year soliciting donations, making ribbons and posters, and sending him get-well cards.
They presented him with a birthday card on Thursday, signed by dozens of students and teachers.
"Thank you for giving us something to believe in," one wrote. "I have never heard of so much courage out of one man,"another wrote.
Benoit has been stoic in the face of 78 surgeries over six months during his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He was driving a 9,000-pound armored Humvee in Baghdad when an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded underneath. Benoit took the brunt of the blast across his backside.
The explosion left a wound so wide and deep that it extended from the small of his back to the top of his legs. His doctors did not expect him to survive, let alone walk and climb stairs 10 months later.
Benoit continues to undergo daily physical therapy at Walter Reed. Although doctors did not want to operate again for a couple of more months, plastic surgeons must attend to his back again next week. Some of the skin and soft tissue they took from his thigh to cover his back is not holding up well against the pressure.
Despite this setback, Benoit said he hasn't given up on his goal -- to walk with just one assisting device.
His other goal is to return home for good before the end of the year. Benoit and his mother, Missy (who took a leave from her job to stay with him at Walter Reed), hope their new home in Wharton will be ready by the holidays.
Wharton donated property on Eileen Court for a home to be built for the Benoits. They could not return to the home they lived in with Benoit's two brothers because it is not accessible for the disabled. The Eileen Court property was auctioned to Benoit and, on Thursday night, the board of adjustment approved the variance required to build on the property.
A groundbreaking could occur within a month.
The town is working with the nonprofit Homes for our Troops on the house project. On the Homes for our Troops Web site, www.homesforourtroops.org, there is a listing of the 20 individuals and companies that already have committed materials and services. They still need items such as sheetrock and siding, but Home for our Troops has been impressed by how many have come forward so soon, considering that a shovel hasn't hit the ground yet.
In addition, various fundraisers have been held, with one of the largest being a Wharton pub crawl sponsored by the Wharton Republican Club in March, which raised $15,000.
Benoit got to walk around the property for the first time on Thursday. The only evidence of what the future holds is an American flag posted on a tree.
Benoit said it was hard to picture a house there, but he did get a kick out of seeing his name and address on blueprints. It hasn't quite sunk in that the land is his.
The day he gets to move in seems far away. Sitting in his grandmother's house, Benoit said he was happy to be home in Wharton.
"All I wanted for my birthday was to be home," Benoit said.
The feeling was mutual at Alfred C. MacKinnon Middle School, where they literally rolled out a red carpet for his visit on Friday. His former teacher, Patti Bilinkas, also threw him a party and had an eighth-grader read a poem that Benoit wrote when he was in the fifth grade. Then, Benoit sat to autograph the eighth-graders' yearbooks.
"It was a good birthday,"Benoit said. "Sure beats the last one -- I got mortared."