Veteran’s injuries follow him home

Special to the Tribune Chronicle Craig Bennett of Warren, seen here posing with Afghans during his deployment to Afghanistan as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom, served in the United States Marine Corps from 2009 to 2016.

WARREN — Craig Bennett sacrificed his dreams and his body for the United States, fighting to free the people in Afghanistan from the chokehold of the Taliban.

Traumatic brain injuries, compressed discs, torn ligaments in his shoulders and a broken tailbone mean the U.S. Marine has trouble remembering things and can’t lift heavy objects over his head. He said his body is subjected to debilitating aches and pains.

The injuries he sustained mean he can’t study veterinary science — like he did in high school at Trumbull Career and Technical Center — or even choose another field because of his disabled status, he said.

“They won’t put money into someone that can’t work,” Bennett said.

And still, with everything he has been through — endless doctor appointments, numerous surgeries, a slew of medications he had to stop taking because they made him feel like a zombie, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder and his damaged sense of self worth — he said he would trade all the benefits he receives from the U.S. Veterans Administration just to be healthy enough to go back to serving alongside his fellow Marines or to have a “normal body” again. Bennett said he hasn’t been able to recreate the camaraderie and bonds he developed while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

He said he felt “useless” for a long time after his injuries forced him into a medical retirement in 2016.

“I wanted to be on the frontlines. I wanted to do something that meant something. I wanted to protect people who can’t protect themselves, to protect my family and the people in this country, and the people in that country,” Bennett said.

He has two brothers serving, one in the Air Force and one a fellow Marine. His grandfather was in the Navy and then became a firefighter, and his great-grandfather was in the Bataan Death March on the Philippine island of Luzon during World War II.

“I can’t believe what he went through and survived. It must have been terrible. I saw the way it affected him, but that didn’t deter me from joining,” Bennett said.

The attack on Sept. 11, 2001 — he was living in New York at the time — greatly impacted him, he said. And when his uncle lost a leg in Iraq, it only made him want to serve more.

Bennett joined the delayed entry program at 17 and two weeks after graduating from high school in 2009, he was in boot camp. By 2010, he was in Afghanistan.

As a member of the infantry, a rifleman and a mortarman, he pushed out from Kandahar into the country, working closely with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, training them and giving them the tools to free themselves from the oppressive regime.

He got to see the country and, working closely with the people of Afghanistan, he developed empathy for their plight and bonded with the men with whom he worked.

“They are just people. People here don’t understand the war or understand them. We were there to help them, and you could see the look of cheer on their faces when we arrived. They appreciated us and the ones who didn’t? You have to understand what it would be like for people to come into your country and start shooting in your front yard. So, I understood that, too,” Bennett said.

The expert marksman has nightmares about the “engagements” he was in and doesn’t like to talk about them. He is in therapy and that helps, he said. But it is hard to explain to people who haven’t been through what he has been through, and that can be frustrating, he said.

There is still a stigma in the Marines about getting treatment for mental health, which can be isolating, Bennett said.

While Bennett said he has come a long way since he had to get around in a wheelchair or rely on a cane, the pain and the anxiety can still make him feel like staying in his house all day.

But he wants his daughters to have a normal life and a normal dad, so he pushes himself to do more things like taking them to the park and zoo, as he stays home with them during the day. Excursions can be costly on his body, leaving him unable to walk the next day, he said. Using marijuana as a medication is one of the only things that relieves the pain and helps him feel normal, he said.

He still fights negative feelings about his self worth, but he loves being there to raise Kensley, 3, and Karmen, three months, he said.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here right now. They are the reason I get out of bed,” Bennett said.

He intends to transfer his education benefits to one of his daughters and put the other one through school.

“I don’t want them to have to join,” Bennett said.