It was a mundane Wednesday afternoon when Ben Wallace almost lost his life.
And what a life he has lived.
Ben, a 43-year-old construction worker who grew up in Davenport, served in combat as a United States Army medic during Operation Iraqi Freedom, married his high school sweetheart, went to college after the military and earned a degree in marketing, raised three kids and even started doing stand-up comedy around the Quad-Cities.
He took to the stage because he wanted a way to face his fears of an audience and tell stories about his time in the military. He now faces an even greater challenge.
Sometime after noon on Oct. 4, Ben was on the deck of a home in Geneseo, working a room-addition job with a construction company.
“It was a normal day in every way. It was, like, just after lunch on a regular day,” he said. “I’m raised up, by the railing of the deck, using the hammer to remove a portion of this pergola over the deck, and I slipped and fell and landed on my back.
“I knew right away that I was hurt. I thought I’d separated my shoulder. I even got up, you know, trying to walk it off.”
Tess, Ben’s wife, works as a massage therapist and was on the job when her phone rang.
“Our deal is that when we are busy, we call back,” she said. “So I call him back at 1:15 p.m. and Ben says to me ‘Don’t panic, I got hurt at work. I’m on my way to the hospital.’ So asked him how bad he was hurt and he says: ‘I fell off a deck and I think I dislocated my shoulder.’
“So I make this joke about ‘Lethal Weapon,’ you know the movie with the Mel Gibson torture scene, and I say ‘So you don’t need me there” and then the medic cuts in and says ‘Yes he needs you.’ and so I headed for the hospital.”
Ben was transported to the Genesis Medical Center in Silvis. An emergency room doctor there determined Ben had much more than a dislocated shoulder. That doctor order a life flight to University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City.
“My fourth vertebrae was crushed until my fifth vertebrae and I was in a lot of trouble,” Ben explained. “Getting prepped for the helicopter, that was terrifying. The crew, they were great, very calm, very reassuring.
“But I knew from my own experience as a medic that if they called in the helicopter, I was in some trouble. It started to really get to me.”
Ben underwent surgery to realign his fourth and fifth vertebrae, as well as to have his neck fused. He said he felt the same feeling he felt during his time in combat.
“I want to try and explain this,” he said. “I was a medic like any other medic. Most days, it was pretty routine stuff, and some of what I saw was pretty graphic. I experienced the death of soldiers.
“But I didn’t flash back to that when they put me in the helicopter. It’s been almost 20 years since what I experienced in Iraq and I have had a lot of time to grieve.”
Ben groped to find the right words.
“But once we were on the way, it felt like war,” he said. “It’s this feeling of powerlessness. It’s this feeling you have when you know you are going to lose a patient and there is no way to effect the outcome.
“I was on the stretcher with no way to effect the outcome. That has a certain kind of terror to it.”
Ben can walk and sit up. He doesn’t have use of his right arm and he could be in a neck brace another six weeks.
Ben made a joke of his arm. Comedy was always a way to share something of himself with others.
“I told Tess that I could switch from comedy to being a puppeteer,” he said. “I started doing open mic comedy nights because the idea of an audience terrified me, but I was drawn to it. It was a challenge, a monster to be slain.
“And, you know, I had kind of moved away from it. But I’ve been thinking I have to go back now. There is no way I can’t try to share about this.”
Ben’s wife expects him to meet the challenges.
Tess first met Ben in 1995. They married in 2007. She said her husband will fight and recover. She is not surprised by seeing his strength.
“But now I’ve seen him fragile, too,” she said. “I think he is struggling to accept his limitations right now. I have not seen him this way and I don’t know if he has really ever seen himself this way.
“But this is like his ‘Rocky’ moment. I get to see him fight back because not for a second do I doubt his ability to overcome this.”
Ben expressed what he called “gratitude.”
“Like I said, it was a normal Wednesday and then it wasn’t. I wasn’t very high off the ground, fell maybe seven feet. But that was all it took,” he said. “I can’t be upset because this could have been so much worse. I’m here. I’m in the same room with my wife.
“I’m just very blessed. Not many people get to see their life in a moment of fracture and get to come back. I’m grateful and I’m going to find a way to get back and share my gratitude with others.”
People can help out Ben and Tess and their family through GoFundMe: www.gofundme.com/f/bringing-ben-back-home/.
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