DeKALB – Richard Bennett’s mind was blank when he threw himself on top of his unit’s medic.
It was a search-and-destroy mission in the Korangal Valley of Afghanistan in September 2010. Bennett, an Army private first class at the time, had recently been promoted to squad leader after two of his commanding officers were severely wounded in combat.
On an open terrace of a house on the side of a mountain, the unit’s medic was shot in the neck. Bennett and his soldiers didn’t know if he was alive; he was lying face down.
“No one was around him,” Bennett said. “We were taking heavy contact, and I just ran over to him, and I jumped on top of him. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to cover him to protect him as best you can.”
Bennett called for help, but a bullet ripped through the hand of the first soldier who responded. Bennett then began dragging the wounded medic to cover.
“I still don’t know how I didn’t get shot,” Bennett said. “I mean, I am telling you, a wall of fire. We were just getting hammered. So I dragged him over, still don’t know to this day how I didn’t get shot.”
The 32-year-old DeKalb resident initially was going to be awarded the Bronze Star with valor, but Army command upgraded it to a Silver Star. The Silver Star is the third highest medal for valor in the U.S. military.
Now, Bennett is up for a more lighthearted award.
He is one of 90 finalists in the “Tribute for Heroes” contest sponsored by Major League Baseball and People magazine.
Three veterans are assigned to each baseball team, and the one with the most votes per team will be involved with and recognized during the MLB’s All-Star Weekend on July 12 through 16. One of the winners also will be profiled in a future issue of People magazine.
People can go online and vote for Bennett or other veterans through June 30. For the contest, Bennett is paired with the Chicago Cubs; go to http://shawurl.com/njl to vote for Bennett.
Pride in service
His older sister, Laura Bennett, 38, nominated Bennett after seeing the “Tribute for Heroes” campaign advertised during a Cubs game. She said her brother deserved the recognition, especially since he joined the Army so late in life.
“We were so proud of him,” she said. “I am so proud of him. He’s a hero in my eyes.
“To me, it doesn’t really matter who wins at this point, it’s just a really good program. We’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan, and I think it’s important for people to know what veterans are doing and soldiers are still serving.”
Bennett, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Northern Illinois University, wants to work with the Wounded Warrior Project after graduation, according to his profile on the voting website. He is also vice president of NIU’s Veterans Club.
This is his second stint at NIU. He attended the university in 2001 shortly after graduating high school in St. Charles. At that time, partying was more important, and he dropped out.
He became a bartender, and later worked as a restaurant manager at several places. He decided to enlist in 2009 at the age of 28 after watching the continuous news coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I felt really empty watching these wars drag on,” Bennett said. “I didn’t feel like I was giving my full potential. So I joined the Army. I said if I can stand behind these guys, I sure ... can stand with them.”
Honoring the brotherhood
Bennett became an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division, a distinction Bennett noted with pride. Nine months later, he received orders to go to Afghanistan for a one-year deployment.
“A lot of feelings start coming to mind,” Bennett said. “Fear, the whole bit – will I come back alive? But the biggest one for me was I hope I can do right by these guys standing next to me ... It changes when you’re actually in and you know the brotherhood.”
Bennett said it was that brotherhood he felt when he ran to help the medic. The mission was deemed a success, as Bennett and his men blew up a large cache of weapons. But Bennett was glad to see everyone lived through the mission.
“For me, the biggest thing is when nobody dies – success,” Bennett said. “Everybody went home that day.”
Go to http://shawurl.com/njl to vote for Richard Bennett, 32, of DeKalb, in the "Tribute for Heroes" contest. Voting ends June 30.
Tribute for Heroes