Soldier reflects on Middle East

WARREN – Staff Sgt. Frederick Benson provided security for convoys in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 and to reconstruction teams in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. The Warren native served as a noncommissioned officer in charge to a whistle blower at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and met presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

He said he finds strength in positions of leadership and believes it is his duty to inspire and honor his brothers and sisters in uniform.

“We became a family over blood, sweat and tears there,” he said. “The morale of our unit went down as we started losing soldiers, whether hurt or fatally injured. Being in a leadership position, I had to motivate them. But I got down, too. I had my issues back in the states.”

While in Afghanistan in 2004, Benson’s brother, Ryan, was murdered on Ohio Avenue in Warren, a case that remains unsolved.

“It was rough. You have to deal with the same things everyone else has to deal with, but it is harder over there,” Benson said.

While deployed to Afghanistan with Fort Bragg’s 3rd Battalion 321st Field Artillery Regiment, Benson lived in a mud-brick building in the village of Qulat in Zabul province.

“It was filled with Taliban. We were providing security for a provincial reconstruction team that was building wells to bring fresh water to the village,” Benson said.

The village is what is known as “outside the wire,” meaning it is not secured and protected like a military base typically is. Driving on some of the most dangerous roads in the world, the field artillery regiment routinely traveled the 84.5 miles to Kandahar City for supplies.

Benson and the other soldiers in his unit had about 50 workers to protect, he said, but the local Afghans were not always who they said they were. A number of the laborers were fired when translators or coworkers indicated they were associates of the Taliban.

One day, one of those fired laborers retaliated against the unit.

“Sure enough, they came back and tried to bomb us,” Benson said. “The guy blew his leg off, him and a couple of other guys. We got him and performed first aid, momentarily saving his life, and then he told us who else was part of the Taliban. We later captured them and the attacker died of his wounds.”

In 2005, Benson was deployed to Iraq where he provided convoy security for semi-trucks carrying supplies. Benson’s wife, Samantha also served in the Army, but, for family reasons, she opted to separate when they both received orders to Iraq.

“It was terrible,” Benson said. “We were just targets, that’s all we were.”

After returning to the states safely, Benson served as a platoon sergeant from 2007 to 2011 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

He was noncommissioned officer in charge to an estimated 300 soldiers, ensuring that the wounded warriors received medication, attended appointments and made it through the complicated “med-board” process.

“It was rough but rewarding,” Benson said. “A soldier comes in missing a limb and you help him through therapy, counsel him. Eventually you see him walking and running, starting to get back to life and a new kind of normal living.”

While Benson was Sgt. John Shannon’s platoon sergeant, the soldier blew the whistle about poor conditions soldiers were subjected to during their healing at Walter Reed.

“They had wounded and ill soldiers put in contracted housing in the D.C. area, living in apartment buildings with rats and roaches,” Benson said. “It wasn’t very clean.”

Benson continues to work with disabled soldiers at his current post in Washington’s U.S. Army Physical Disability Agency.

He recently took leave to come back to Warren when his uncle, Vietnam veteran Russell Benson, died in June. He secured a $2,000 donation from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1090 to help pay for funeral arrangements and made sure his uncle was laid to rest with military honors.

Believing the military instills a sense of responsibility and discipline, Benson said all young people should experience at least two years of service.

“I was 18, and I was scared, thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?'” Benson said, reflecting on his enlistment 18 years ago last week. “I don’t regret anything. I love the Army.”