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A Soldier's Story

Editor's Note: Several weeks ago reader Dick Benson suggested we use the experience of his son John to illustrate the challenges facing members of the modern military. When we asked for a summary of his son's experience, Dick's response convinced us that a father's perspective offered our readers a rare glimpse into military life. As we prepare to celebrate our nation's amazing declaration of independence, made so dramatically 236 years ago, it's fitting that we consider the day-to-day life of the modern soldier. We thank Dick and John Benson for sharing their story.

A dozen years ago, John Benson felt the call of duty. His decision to join our armed services has forever changed his life, and that of his family in Forest Grove.

By Dick Benson

After graduating from Forest Grove High School in 1999, my son, John ("Jack") Benson, joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

During the final graduation training exercise, a 50-mile hike with a full 75-pound pack and rifle, he stepped in a chuck hole with a rock in the bottom of it. Instantly he knew he had broken his foot. He also knew that if he reported it, he would not graduate and receive his globe and anchor, so he continued the 50 miles left in the exercise.

When it was complete and he had received the globe and anchor, he informed his drill instructor of the injury. He untied the boot and instantly the foot swelled up. (I won't repeat what the drill instructor said.)

During the graduation ceremony he was awarded the top-shooter award (and a couple other awards) for the entire company of approximately 450 graduates. Because of the injury he was given a medical discharge.

For over two years after Sept. 11, 2001, John tried to rejoin the Marines, even going clear up to the Surgeon General of the United States. He was cleared by the Surgeon General to rejoin the Marines, but was turned down by a Marine general.

In the meantime he attended Western Oregon University in the Criminal Justice Program, but wanted to join the other men and women who were serving in Iraq at the time, so he joined the Oregon National Guard in Salem.

While in the guard, John went to several military training courses around the country, including parachute jump school. After jump school he requested to transfer from guard to full Army active duty.

He was accepted and shortly after was stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He was soon promoted to sergeant for his prior experience. Three months later he was deployed to Iraq.

For me and my wife, Jane, it was a very stressful time. Every time an unknown car pulled up in front of the house we worried that it might be a military vehicle with an Army chaplain in it.

In fact, John lost his hearing for a couple of days when a roadside bomb exploded near him and his men. His commanding officer lost his foot in that explosion, but John tracked the bomber down in a nearby palm grove.

After 15 months in Iraq he returned to Fort Stewart, and after staying the required time on base after deployment, he wanted to come home to Forest Grove for the rest of his leave. It was December 2008, during one of the biggest snow storms in the last half-century, and there was over a foot of snow in northwest Oregon. He got stranded in the Salt Lake City airport for two days before he was able to get a flight to Eugene.

I chained up the car and drove down I-5 through the worst of driving conditions.

John's brother-in-law, Zu Tanakura, and his best friend, Erik Gurske of Hillsboro, rode along for support (and traction on the heavy snow and ice). We arrived back at Zu's house in Hillsboro at 3 a.m. the next morning.

When they arrived, a friend of John's sister, Jessi Benson Tanakura, was there waiting to meet him.

Mandee Sholz had never met John but had read some of his letters, seen his pictures and declared she was going to be his wife. She was introduced to him and they spent the rest of his leave doing things together. They carried on a long-distance courtship and five months later she went to visit him at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

A few days later they called home and told everyone they had been married.

Mandee returned home to her parents' home in Hillsboro, packed her car full to the brim with as many belongings as she could, and drove for three days across country to Fort Polk. John was shortly thereafter transferred to the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles at Fort Campbell, Kentucky where they rented a house just outside the base, and he was promoted to Staff Sergeant.

Two months later Staff Sgt. Benson was deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 101st Airborne. He was assigned command of a platoon of 32 other soldiers and junior sergeants.

In mid-May of 2011, his platoon was ordered to travel to the northern boarder of Afghanistan and Pakistan, overlooking the routes coming out of Pakistan that crossed into Afghanistan. One day in May (coincidently, his and Mandee's anniversary) John sent an email to me saying that the platoon had been on a special mission that we would hear about in the news, but that he could not talk about it at the time.

The next day it was announced that Seal Team 6 had killed Osama Bin Laden. It was then obvious to us that they had been stationed along the border for a very special reason. It was just east of Obitobad, Pakistan, where Bin Laden had been killed.

We were very excited and proud that John had been part of a very special and historic mission.

About two weeks later, he was on another mission tracking down some Taliban and was leading his soldiers out the back end of a Chinook Helicopter that was hovering about 12 feet above the ground. The pilot had to make a correction with the helicopter and John was thrown to the ground.

He landed hard on the ground, injuring his back. About a week after this incident, he was leading his men after another group of Taliban, going down a steep cliff, when one of his soldiers started to fall. John made an attempt to grab the soldier and keep him from falling. In doing so, he himself fell 15 feet to a ledge below. injuring his back again.

He knew that he probably should admit himself into the hospital, but he didn't think that his replacement was up to speed. So, he continued on, leading his men.

The following week they were out on mission, bouncing around in the back of trucks and helicopters, when they caught up to another group of Taliban and got into hand-to-hand combat with them. While fighting, the injury to his back pinched a nerve and caused his legs to collapse from under him.

A medivac helicopter was called in and he was taken to a hospital unit, where doctors determined he needed to be treated at a hospital in Germany.

The next day I received an email from John explaining what had happened. The doctors put him on very strong pain medications because the pain was so severe, and he could not walk. A few days later he was sent to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where there is a hospital unit equipped for seriously injured soldiers.

It was determined that John had two herniated discs in his lower back and he spent the next month at the hospital before Mandee could go and visit him. She later told me that when she first saw him he was all stooped over and could barely walk. It was three weeks later before he could return back to their home at Fort Campbell.

We were able to go and visit him a couple of months later for three days.

John had to go through months of physical therapy and traction, which he said was very painful. But at least now he is walking, although very slowly and still on pain meds.

John and Mandee were supposed to come home for a leave, but the pain and expenses kept them from doing so. So until the Army review board releases him and assigns him to new duty, they will be restricted to within 250 miles of Fort Campbell.

Their families are anxiously waiting for that day.

 



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