HAMILTON — Sgt. Scott Bennett still has difficulties descending stairs — “my ankle just doesn’t want to bend that way” — but he’s back in his uniform and in his new Montana Highway Patrol car, off of light desk duty and onto the streets.
The road that led to his recovery lasted a long eight months for Bennett, who was injured in a head-on crash on U.S. Highway 93 by an alleged impaired driver during a snowstorm March 8. Bennett was driving northbound and a Dodge Intrepid driven southbound by David Deshazo slid out of control about 6 a.m. and into the northbound lane on a curve.
Deshazo, 44, is charged with two felonies — negligent vehicular assault and criminal endangerment — relating to the accident.
Not only does the moment of impact replay in Bennett’s head, he’s watched it a few times on the video captured on his patrol car camera.
“The camera was by my head,” he says, holding his right hand near his eye, “so the video is exactly what I saw. Every time I watch it, or think about it, I cringe. It was a snowstorm, and I just see this car coming at me.”
When the crash occurred, his right foot was pushing down hard on the brake pedal, and the engine came through the firewall into the passenger compartment, breaking his right tibia and fibia, and shattering other bones into pieces. He slumped over into the passenger seat after the impact, but didn’t lose consciousness. In the Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, Bennett was in so much pain he begged for doctors to take his right leg off.
He endured three surgeries, which involved inserting plates, screws and cadaver bones in his leg. At one point, he wore an “external fixator” that consisted of bolts through his ankle and a metal external plate that immobilized it.
Bennett spent the first few weeks in a haze, lying on his couch, consuming pain pills and keeping the ankle elevated with ice on it. He watched movies, dozed, and tried not to think that his 17-year career could be finished.
“It would be easy to give up; I could have taken medical retirement, but I didn’t want to go that route,” Bennett recalled. “In this career, you identify as a person — it’s kind of who you are — as a law enforcement officer. It doesn’t stop when you get off shift.
“Because of the extent of the damage, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come back to full duty. You have to run, jump and fight, things that involve a lot of physical activity. I wasn’t sure I’d get back.”
He went to physical therapy, but also returned to his lifelong love of lifting weights. At first, he went to the gym once a week, then twice a week, then three times. The workouts started lightly, then he added more weight.
Bennett laughs, recalling how he would have to push down on his right leg to accelerate his vehicle to get to the gym.
“Luckily, it wasn’t too far, and I could use my left leg to brake,” he said.
After five months of what he called an excruciating period of time, he was allowed back on light duty status. That meant paperwork at his desk, out of uniform, and without a marked MHP vehicle.
“It was very frustrating,” he recalled. “I would be in the office, maybe approving reports, but across the scanner would come a nearby call and I couldn’t run on it.”
A few short weeks ago, his doctor cleared him for patrol duty. He’s got a new vehicle, the old uniform, and new boots. His old rig was totaled in the accident and his duty boots were cut off.
His supervisor, Sgt. Jim Kitchin, is thrilled to have Bennett return. He notes that with only 242 officers statewide, anytime one is off the streets it’s felt throughout the ranks. Along with having to move people around to cover shifts, it limits their opportunities to do proactive policing.
“Sgt. Bennett is one of the sergeants that we like to have on the road, and he likes to be out there working with his team,” Kitchin said. “Having him back is great.”
Bennett knows he’ll never be the same. He’s expected to have severe arthritis in his right ankle as he ages. He’s still in a lot of discomfort, and the accident limits some physical activities, like racquetball.
But he feels he is close to the end of his road to recovery.
“I’m adapting to my new reality,” Bennett said. “But it’s good to be back. I’ve been to a couple of crashes, have made some traffic stops, and even just finished making an arrest. I’m still in the office doing paperwork a lot, because that’s part of my job, but it’s good to be back.”