Just as the details were emerging of a sex scandal involving Gen. David Petraeus that the media was calling “explosive,” Staff Sgt. Kenneth Wade Bennett took what bomb disposal experts call “the lonely walk” toward an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
Bennett was on his third combat tour there and this time he had left behind a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter. A snapshot taken of him and his daughter, Lila, just before he deployed in September showed the two of them walking hand in hand away from the camera.
“No bye bye, Daddy,” the girl said. “Don’t go away.”
“One more time, honey,” he told her.
As he spoke he had a patch on his uniform that is more respected in the military than four stars even before the scandal. The patch read EOD and it identified him as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, one of those extraordinarily brave souls such as are depicted in the movie The Hurt Locker.
Two months after that walk with little Lila across a parking lot near his unit’s headquarters in Fort Lewis, Wash., he was making that loneliest of walks into the most mortal danger in Afghanistan. He had made this walk many times in his three deployments and his motivation remained as simple as it was noble. It was what makes the EOD patch a true badge of honor.
Whatever the status of the war, whatever the latest American geopolitical objectives, whatever the outcome of the presidential election, whatever the behavior of generals, Bennett routinely faced sudden and incredibly violent death with the single and singular goal of saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. He had only to be told that he was needed and a grace would descend on him. He would once more become a figure made scruffily holy by another demonstration of that greatest love.
“It’s like you’re a fireman on 9/11, going into danger while everybody else is running away,” says close family friend Bob Jennings.
Jennings notes that Bennett’s training had really begun back when he was growing up as a car mechanic’s son in Glendora, Calif.
“He kind of grew up in a put-it-together house,” Jennings says. Bennett’s hands had just seemed to know what to do.
“Always tinkering, making things work,” says Jennings.
That had made Bennett a natural at the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Basic School at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He arrived there in 2006, when he was just 20. He no doubt saw the memorial wall there on which are inscribed the names of EOD technicians who had been killed in action. There is no counting how many lives they saved before losing their own, how many other soldiers were saved from losing limbs and suffering traumatic brain injuries.
“To touch something that was meant to cause death and destruction and overcome it, to deny it is the most amazing feeling,” reads a quote from an anonymous EOD technician on the unit’s Facebook page.
Bennett had been only 21 when he was first deployed as an EOD expert, making the lonely walk again and again and again from August 2007 to November 2008. He survived to attend the 2009 annual EOD memorial ceremony and ball at Eglin.
The ceremony at the wall was a solemn reminder of the latest EOD technicians to have given all. Photos of the ball that followed and of the partying on the beach show Bennett and his comrades remembering the fallen in the best possible way: with laugher and love.
Back in Washington State, Bennett had all the more reason to rejoice in being a survivor when he met and married registered nurse Mandi Foster, who then added his surname to her own.
He had all the more to lose when he was deployed a second time, from March 2010 to March 2011. But he proved no less ready to answer the call whenever he was needed.
His hands again worked their life-saving magic and he returned home to begin the life of a father. His wife became pregnant with their second child, and the couple closed on their first home just as he was being deployed for a third time. He visited his childhood home before he set off yet again.
“How do you feel about going back?” the family friend, Jennings, asked.
“If they ask me to go back, it’s what I do,” Bennett replied. “It’s my job.”
Then came the walk where little Lila told her daddy, “No bye bye,” as her tiny hand held the big one that would be going back to defusing bombs.
“A 2-year-old’s premonition?” Jennings later asked.
The toll of EOD technicians in Iraq and Afghanistan stood at 115 last Saturday as Bennett approached yet another demonic device while supporting a Special Operations unit in Sperwan Gar near Kandahar. The final and incontestable proof of his nobility is that even as he was killed, he kept the bomb from killing anybody else.
As the country was buzzing about the “explosive” Petraeus sex scandal, a solemn uniformed casualty-assistance officer arrived at Bennett’s home and informed his pregnant wife what she must have known the instant she saw him.
Word then reached the put-it-together house in Glendora. Jennings found himself unable to believe that someone so skilled as Bennett could have been killed.
“Wade was too good at that, it couldn’t be Wade,” Jennings remembers telling himself.
The grieving mother, Nancy Bennett, is co-chair of Glendora Project Yellow Ribbon, a grass-roots organization that puts up a yellow ribbon banner for every member of the community who is serving in the military. The group had been discussing just a few days before what to do if one of those served were killed, never imagining that it might be the co-chair’s son. They figure on now having a ceremony where the banner will be retired and presented to the family.
The funeral will be in December at Arlington National Cemetery. This truest of soldiers, this savior of fellow soldiers had asked to be buried there should he suffer the fate of so many other EOD technicians, no matter how skilled.
The toll of EOD technicians now stands at 116. The name Kenneth Wade Bennett will became the latest inscribed on the wall, to be remembered at the next EOD Ceremony and Ball.
His second child is expected in May.