By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone November 6, 2013
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Honor. Duty. Selfless service.
Such attributes walk each day with the inductees of the Madison County Hall of Heroes. For every inductee into the hall, there's a heroic story that defines their service to the nation.
On Nov. 8, the community will induct five new members of the Madison County Hall of Heroes during the annual Veterans Day Dinner. Each has been nominated for inclusion in the Hall of Heroes by members of the local community or the state's Department of Veterans Affairs, and then their nomination has been reviewed and selected by the Madison County Military Heritage Commission.
"Members of the Madison County office of the Department of Veterans Affairs work with veteran clients every day. They know who would be a good nominee for the Hall of Heroes. But we also rely on word of mouth to get our nominees. They can be nominated through our website," Steve Ray of the Madison County Military Heritage Commission said.
The website for the Madison County Military Heritage Commission is www.mcmhc.org.
"There are criteria they have to meet to be inducted," Ray said. "They have to have received an award for valor, and they either have to be from Madison County or have lived in Madison County for three years."
Beyond that, though, Ray said he sees many of the same attributes in every Hall of Heroes inductee.
"Most of these guys are very humble people," he said. "They are people who are service oriented. They always seem to want to help someone else. They are conscientious of their fellow man. And they are all-around good people."
At the Veterans Day Dinner, the stories of the new inductees are told and they are presented to a grateful audience.
"I hope each of these inductees leave our event with a sense of recognition," Ray said. "I hope they have a sense that people are recognizing their service and people are appreciating their service.
"It's a wonderful event during a very special week of activities. We are so glad these inductees are part of our event."
After the ceremonial induction, the inductees names will be added to the list at the Hall of Heroes that fills the walls in the lobby of the Madison County Courthouse.
The 2013 inductees are:
Retired Marine Capt. Raymond "Ben" Benfatti, Vietnam War -- A recipient of the Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal with Valor and Purple Heart, 84-year-old Benfatti is looking forward to spending time with local American heroes at the Veterans Day Dinner.
"Being inducted into the Hall of Heroes is the highest honor I could ever receive in my 84 years of life," he said. "It will be great to be amongst other heroes in the hall. I believe everybody who serves is a hero."
Benfatti joined the Marines at age 17 out of respect for his brother, Victor, who was killed in action during the invasion of Guam during World War II. Victor Benfatti was awarded the Silver Star Medal posthumously.
"One morning, my brother woke me up and said he was going to join the Marines and told me to take care of myself. I never saw him again," Benfatti said. "I wanted to avenge his death. He was my hero."
Benfatti's first combat experience was in the Korean War from 1951-52. He then did two tours of Vietnam, one in 1965-66 as a gunnery sergeant and the second in 1968-69 as a second lieutenant, first lieutenant and then captain.
Benfatti received a Silver Star Medal just like his big brother and several other medals for his actions, including a Purple Heart, as a first lieutenant on Feb. 17, 1969, while serving as the commanding officer of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines in the Republic of Vietnam.
On that day, Benfatti's company was providing security for Fire Base Cunningham in Quang Tri Province when the position was attacked by two North Vietnamese army companies.
"We had some fierce battles in the valley," he recalled. "On this particular day, we were hit early in the morning, about 3 a.m. It was cold and foggy."
During the initial moments of the attack, Benfatti was severely wounded in the right jaw by shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade. Although his injuries were painful, Benfatti refused medical evacuation and instead remained in command to direct fire against the enemy until the attacking sapper unit was ejected from its position.
"There were two battalions of the North Vietnamese army and sappers, who are suicide troops who blow themselves up so their army could come under the wire at Fire Base Cunningham," he said. "There was a lot of hand-to-hand fighting to push them back out.
"We couldn't get air support. Our artillery pieces were shooting from the top of a hill to stop the enemy coming up."
Ignoring the enemy rounds impacting around him, Benfatti quickly organized a reaction force, and supervised his Marines in evacuating the U.S. causalities and in replacing wounded Marines in defensive emplacements.
As the large enemy unit continued to advance upon the perimeter, Benfatti repeatedly exposed himself to the intense hostile fire so he could direct the efforts of his men in repulsing the enemy attack.
When the North Vietnamese army withdrew, he supervised the medical evacuation of causalities. There were 50 wounded Marines and four fatalities. He continued to refuse medical assistance until all other men had been cared for.
"We killed at least 52 of the enemy, and maybe more," he said.
Of his heroic actions, Benfatti said, "A man's got to do what a man's told to do in war. As Marines, we were well-designed to fight the mission. Even today, I am still mentally sharp and physically sharp. At 84, I'm not as mean, and not as lean. But I am still a Marine."
Benfatti retired with 24 years of service in the Marines. He went on to work 20 years in the Federal Protective Service in San Diego, Calif., where he provided protection for federal judges and other personnel at the federal courthouse.
He plans to bring his wife, Elizabeth Ann, to the induction ceremony. But health problems may keep her at home.
"I hope very much that she does make it to the ceremony. I will do my best to have her there," he said.
The couple moved to Huntsville in 2004, where they enjoy a much quieter lifestyle these days. "It is much healthier for us here," Benfatti said. "Alabama takes care of its veterans. It's not like that everywhere else."
Retired Army Col. Ruford "Wayne" Fowler, Vietnam War -- At age 19, Fowler entered the Army from Louisville, Ky., in 1966, and trained to fly helicopters.
"I went from high school to flight school," he said. "My good reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination got me through.
"I was raised as a hunter. My dad would give me a single-shot .22 rifle with one bullet, and would tell me to bring back a squirrel or rabbit and then he would give me another bullet. That was good training for the Army."
Fowler then went on to deploy for three tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot.
"Most of what I did during my first tour was to lead a light scout platoon," Fowler said. "But in 1967-68 and in 1967-70, our job as scouts was to locate the enemy and mark the targets for the gunships. That's what we did for a living back in those days."
On Feb. 1, 1968, then warrant officer Fowler piloted a Hiller OH-23 Raven light observation helicopter on an aerial reconnaissance mission near Thanh An, Republic of Vietnam, while assigned to the 10th Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division. For his actions on that date, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism while participating in aerial flight.
After locating a recently used base camp, Fowler hovered his aircraft over a bunker complex and conducted reconnaissance by fire. Intense fire erupted from the enemy position, and he and his wingman marked the position for gunship strikes.
The gunships came in and completed a strike mission. Fowler then brought his aircraft back over the enemy location to assess the damage. He again came under hostile fire. Once more he marked the target with red smoke and dropped incendiary grenades.
Throughout the afternoon, Fowler's relentless and courageous coverage kept the enemy from escaping. He guided armored personnel carriers into the area and provided cover for insertion of Troop D's Aero-Rifle Platoon. The operation continued into the hours of darkness and he stayed on station to control the action from his aircraft, which was not equipped for night flight.
Once the enemy had been defeated, Fowler carefully guided the armored personnel carriers back to the main trail by using his searchlight.
Fowler also received the Bronze Star Medal for Valor for actions he took in another incident where he landed his helicopter, and got out to recover a crewman who had gotten killed. He also received an Army Commendation Medal while serving in Vietnam.
He went on to serve 28 ½ years in the Army. He received a direct commission in 1976 to the Army's Aviation Branch.
"I commanded from the company level to the battalion level. I enjoyed it," he said.
His hobby as a large bass fisherman brought him to North Alabama for fishing competitions on the Tennessee River. After retiring from the Army in 1993, Fowler and his wife moved to Madison. Fowler today works for a defense contractor.
Retired Army 1st Lt. Phillip Bernard Fikes, Vietnam War -- In 1966, Fikes entered the Army from Winfield in Marion County. He was medically retired due to wounds received in action in 1969 and has lived in Huntsville for 34 years.
"I think it's great to be inducted into the Hall of Heroes," he said. "But I have kind of resisted this kind of thing because I was just one of a lot of guys who stepped up to the plate and did the job that needed to be done. I don't remember a lot that happened that would be a good reason to get this award."
Fikes was awarded two Bronze Star Medals with Valor for heroism while serving in the Republic of Vietnam in 1969 as a platoon leader for the 1st Platoon, Company D, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division.
In May 1969, the 1st Platoon was ordered to rescue the 3rd Platoon, which was pinned down and about to be overrun by a company-sized unit of enemy troops.
Upon entering battle, the fighting was so intense, Fikes called in friendly artillery to within 50 yards of his own positions. Fikes directed his men, gaining fire superiority, and ensuring that wounded Soldiers were medically evacuated while under intense fire.
Fikes was also awarded a Bronze Star Medal with Valor for his actions in February 1969 when his company from the 2nd Brigade Mobile Riverine Force was inserted in enemy territory to surround a Viet Cong company-size unit, resulting in 53 Viet Cong being killed.
He was also awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Valor and two Purple Hearts for head injuries he received in action.
"The first time I was wounded, a helicopter landed on an land mine and I was injured by flying shrapnel and debris. I didn't get an award for that," he said.
"I don't remember the second injury. The third injury was a head injury that I got when a land mine exploded. I was helping a buddy under fire and somebody in the group stepped on a landmine. It wasn't me because I still had my legs. I was unconscious for three days."
These wounds led to Fikes' medical retirement. He suffers from paralysis in his left arm and a limp on his left side.
"I was a pre-med student when I got drafted. After I retired, I changed to an accounting degree," he said. He graduated from the University of Alabama.
Fikes, who works for a local defense and aerospace company, will be accompanied to the induction ceremony by his wife, Frances, and their two daughters and their husbands.
"You can't find a better community for veterans than the one we have here," he said.
"I'm a little nervous about this recognition. I don't do very well standing in front of a lot of people. The 40 guys who were in my platoon all did a great job. Forty years later, what they did is still great. It's really something to think back all those years ago and remember what all happened, and the worries about what I was going to do next in my life and what my life was going to be like after being injured."
Lydrell Dondre Nettles, Operation Iraqi Freedom -- In 1999, Nettles entered the Army from Selma. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2006 and has lived in Huntsville since that time.
Nettles received two Army Commendation Medals with Valor for heroism in connection with military operations against a hostile force in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While serving as a gunner, during his first tour in Iraq, Nettles' courage under fire and unending enthusiasm inspired his Soldiers on the battlefield and resulted in the successful evacuation of wounded Soldiers off the battlefield, saving one Soldier's life.
His capability to perform multiple skilled tasks under fire facilitated unparalleled success for the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) to defeat enemy forces and liberate Iraq.
Nettles' second Army Commendation Medal with Valor was awarded in 2006 for exceptional courage during Iraqi Freedom III while assigned as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action during his second tour in 2005.
Mark Shawn Stacy, Operation Desert Storm -- Operation Desert Storm was a short war, but it's a war Stacy will never forget. His induction into the Hall of Heroes rewards his heroic actions during the war.
"I think this is a great honor," he said. "I think it's fantastic to be regarded as worthy to be in the Hall of Heroes. But I don't feel like a hero. This is for sake of my kids. It's something for my kids to look up to."
Stacy joined the Army while living in Sierra Vista, Ariz. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with Valor for actions taken between Feb. 24, 1991, and Feb. 27, 1991, while serving as a gunner in the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment during Operation Desert Storm. The unit was guarding along the Euphrates River when a battle broke out.
Stacy displayed exceptional bravery in action against the Iraqi army by destroying two T-72 tanks and numerous other pieces of enemy equipment during eight hours of continuous armored battle. Additionally, he was instrumental in the capture of more than 140 enemy prisoners of war.
"What we did is really hard for me to talk about," he said. "There was really a lot going on. There was a sandstorm and everything was pretty chaotic. The conditions were so bad."
Though he left the Army as a specialist with only four years of service, they are four years that he will always be proud of.
"I grew up as an Army brat. So, at the age of 14, I knew what I wanted to do," Stacy said. "The Army was everything I wanted it to be. I didn't want to get out. But a family hardship with my mother caused me to have to leave service.
"I am very glad I served those four years. No matter what happened, I would do it all over again."
Stacy lives in Madison County and works for a local car dealership.