On an island in the middle of Puget Sound between Seattle and Tacoma, the community of Vashon came together to lay to rest an amazing young man who’s bright future was cut tragically short by the war in Afghanistan. Regrettably, this is not the first such memorial I’ve attended recently, and likely not the last. I doubt any will leave such a lasting impression as today.
In his brief 25 years of life, Robert Bennedsen, a 2004 graduate of Vashon High School in Washington State, left several lifetimes full of wonderful memories for his family, friends, and an entire community, to cherish. Robert was a high school wrestler and football star who set many school and state records; a volunteer at the local fire department; a mountain climber; a scuba diver; an avid fisherman and boater; a classic car enthusiast; a 2008 honor graduate from Seattle University with a full Army ROTC scholarship. He was all of these things and so much more. And he was a Soldier, a leader, a 2d Dragoon.
Well over 500 friends and family crowded into the bleachers and on the football field at Vashon High School to share stories and remember the perpetual infectious smile that was Robert “Live Wire” Bennedsen.
Hours before the memorial I had the opportunity to walk the high school grounds as flank guard for Beau Bergeron, acting in the capacity of the Honorary Regimental Colonel to represent the 2d Stryker Cavalry Regiment, currently deployed in Afghanistan, and the 2d Cavalry Association. Several displays were set up in various locations, one containing Robert’s football helmet, wrestling shoes, and volunteer firefighting equipment, others containing dozens and dozens of photos of Robert living life to the fullest with friends and family, and still another in memory of his grandfather whom he loved so much. I was left wondering how one young man could do so much in such a short time and still have time to eat and sleep. And from what I understand after listening to his friends, eating was a very large part of Robert’s life.
Officiating at the ceremony was long time family friend and former fire chief Mike Kirk, accompanied by the fire truck Robert had served on and numerous members of the local fire department. The sound of a departing Blackhawk helicopter in the background as it delivered Major General John D. Johnson, Commander of I Corps and Joint Base Lewis McChord, was soon drowned out by the rumble of Harley Davidsons as the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the remains of 1LT Bennedsen and the family car onto the grounds. A slow lap around the high school track by the PGR was made in tribute as other members of the club set up a flag line on the approach to the field from the lower parking lot, to honor the fallen and screen against protesters, while still more screened the main entrance to the school. A truly patriotic task that there should not be a need for. Thankfully their only task this day was to pay tribute to the fallen.
LT Bennedsen’s ashes were escorted to the podium by the honor guard, friends and fellow Soldiers 1LT Scott Davis and 1LT Dave Stone.
Childhood friend Stefan Wolczko was first to pay tribute to LT Bennedsen with an emotionally stirring song he wrote for Robert, a heartfelt rendering of voice and acoustic guitar. As I felt my stern outer shell crumbling, I settled back and told myself this was going to be a terribly sad day. Oh, how wrong I was.
I don’t know if it was their influence on Robert growing up, or Robert’s influence on them, or both, but in the next hour and a half I witnessed the most remarkable series of friends and relatives take the stage to share Robert with the crowd that had gathered there.
Next to take the stage were Robert’s “other” parents, Mike and Jenny Bredice. Robert had to have two families because he had too much to share with just one. I got the distinct impression that Robert helped power the community, and the lights will all be a little dimmer now with his passing. Jenny Bredice immediately brought the crowd to laughter as she began to recount Robert’s habits and lifestyle, and between her and her husband Mike they soon had tears of laughter on everyone’s cheeks.
Manu Samanna-Spagnoli, Evan Mattingly, and Rick Sassara followed with stories of growing up with Robert, coaching him, trying to keep up with him. You can’t buy this stuff and Hollywood can’t touch it. This was real and from the soul.
1LT’s Dave Stone and Scott Davis continued with what it was like during ROTC with Robert. He was destined for great things, and he did not fall short.
The First Gentleman, Mr. Mike Gregoire, followed with the presentation of the State Flag to Robert’s mother, Tracy Bennedsen, on behalf of the Governor of Washington, Christine Gregoire.
The civilian portion of the ceremony was concluded with the sounding of Last Tone by King County Fire and Rescue’s Linda Hamilton over the short wave radio.
Colonel (Ret.) A.J. (Beau) Bergeron spearheaded the military tribute with the presentation of gold combat spurs and gold star pin to Tracy Bennedsen on behalf of 2SCR and the 2d Cavalry Association.
Col. (Ret.) Bergeron followed with a detailed introduction of Major General Johnson, who after a brief speech, three volley salute, the playing of Taps and flag folding ceremony, accepted the National Colors from the funeral detail officer and presented them to Robert’s mother, followed by several posthumous awards to include the Purple Heart, Bronze Star for meritorious service, NATO Medal, and Combat Action Badge. Other previous awards included were the National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with bronze campaign star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Air Assault Badge, and the Basic Parachutist Badge, which ribbons and badges were all displayed in a flag case and presented to Robert’s mother by MG Johnson.
Final respects were paid to LT Bennedsen by family, friends, and honored guests, including Congressman Jim McDermott, and Brigadier General Bret Daugherty, commander of the Seattle University ROTC program and Assistant Adjutant General, Washington National Guard. LT Bennedsen’s ashes were then escorted to the waiting coach by the honor guard, where escort was relinquished to the Patriot Guard Riders for the short trip to the cemetery and private family burial while a reception continued at the high school.
During the short ferry ride back to the Point Defiance ferry dock in Tacoma I had time to reflect on the days events and came to the realization that for the briefest of moments I had been in the presence of a true All-American, and whatever they were doing on that island in the middle of Puget Sound, they were doing it right and it’s sad there aren’t many places like that left.
First Lieutenant Robert Niels Bennedsen was assigned to 2d Squadron, 2d Stryker Cavalry Regiment, home based in Vilseck, Germany and currently deployed to Afghanistan.
1LT Bennedsen was chosen by his squadron commander, LTC Omar Jones, for the critical position of leading the Logistical Support Team, a position often reserved for the best of the best, as in this case.
1LT Bennedsen was killed during combat operations in Qalat, Afghanistan, by an improvised explosive device during a convoy to provide critical supplies to remote outposts in the region.
One of the vehicles in the convoy, an ambulance containing wounded, had been disabled by a remotely detonated IED. 1LT Bennedsen sprang from his vehicle to aide his comrades, as he was always known to do, when a second device was detonated killing him instantly.
Rest well, young Trooper. Your patrol is completed and it is time for some R&R.
Always Ready, Sir!
Video by KOMO 4 News, Seattle, WA.