By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone November 28, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Children have a way of keeping you planted firmly on the ground.
And for Chief Warrant Officer 4 Patrick Benson, that can be a major feat these days.
This highly decorated aviator topped off his career with yet another award Nov. 23 when he received the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross at his retirement ceremony. The medal, which was awarded by Maj. Gen. Tim Crosby during a ceremony at Redstone Arsenal, is presented to servicemembers for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.
Benson's wife Stacey and his three children -- Collin, 17, Riley, 14, and Layne, 11 -- were be in the audience for the ceremony. Yet, to them their dad is just their dad, a guy who happens to get another medal for a job well done. They are as matter of fact about it as their dad is.
"I think they agree with me that there's more hoopla than necessary about this," the 41-year-old Benson said. "When I told them about it they said 'Really, dad? Do we really have to see you get another award?' They are happy and they are proud of me. But I think they are happiest to know that this retirement ceremony starts another chapter in our lives and, like me, they are trying to figure out what that means."
Although the Purple Heart and combat action badge recipient prefers to be low key about the honors coming his way (including an American Legion Valor Award presented in 2010 and featured in a Redstone Rocket story in the June 2, 2010 issue), he appreciates the significance of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
"It's an extreme honor. It's the oldest aviation award for an aviator that I know of," he said. "It's a pretty big award. But really, I was just doing my job."
For 20 years, Benson's been doing the job -- flying the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter for the Army. During his third combat deployment, on Sept. 8, 2009, Benson and his co-pilot nearly gave their lives for that job.
Deployed with the 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Benson flew Kiowa helicopters to protect Black Hawk Medevac units operating in the Regional Command East in Afghanistan. He and his co-pilot, then Chief Warrant Officer 2 Adam Stead, were attacked by small arms ground fire in the Shuriak Valley as they protected Medevac operations to pull two wounded Soldiers from the area.
The hit injured Stead, who was left unconscious from a bullet wound to the left rear of his head. Benson was hit in the right leg and thigh by a round of shrapnel. Much of the floor of the aircraft at Benson's feet was missing.
Benson was able to recover the aircraft and fly it to a friendly location, Combat Outpost Able Main in Konar, Afghanistan, where the two pilots received medical aid and were flown out of the area. Both underwent several surgeries and long months of rehabilitation.
"I am just happy that Adam and I are still able to be fathers and husbands," Benson said.
Throughout his Army career, Benson has been thankful for the opportunities he has been given to make a difference for the war fighter. By his estimates, he has flown between 1,200 and 1,400 hours of combat flight time during two deployments to Iraq and the deployment to Afghanistan. He has served with units stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Bragg, N.C., and Germany. His last assignment was at Redstone Arsenal, where he served as the system safety officer for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office.
Benson didn't choose to fly Kiowas. Rather, the Army chose for him.
"I really didn't have a preference after flight school," he said. "I became a Kiowa pilot because of the needs of the Army. But once I got the aircraft, and after learning the aircraft and the mission I realized it's really the aircraft that's involved in every phase of the mission. I'm glad I didn't get anything else."
After his battle injuries, Benson had hopes to fly again. That hope never materialized into reality, which was probably for the best, he said.
"After the type of flying we did over in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying back here in the U.S. would not have been as exciting," Benson said. "And I really didn't miss it because I had a great job with Unmanned Aircraft Systems where I hope I made a significant contribution. The new technologies in unmanned aircraft really open up great possibilities of the things we can do for Soldiers on the ground in today's fight and tomorrow's."
When asked about his service, Benson said he is no exception, that he is not anymore special than other Soldiers. And yet, people seem to seek him out to thank him for what he has done for the country.
"I was in Murfreesboro, Tenn., sitting and eating with the family. And this guy walks up behind me, taps me on the back and says 'Welcome home' and then walks away," he recalled. "I was like 'How does he know?' It was genuine. How did I stick out? Then I realized I had one of my unit sweatshirts draped over the chair. I am proud to have served Americans like that. It's very humbling. There's no doubt Americans have supported us. It's a duty and a responsibility to serve, to live up to that."
Throughout his career, Benson has relied on his faith and his family for the support he has needed to do a Soldier aviator's job.
"God has helped me make the right decisions. My faith has helped me with everything -- the deployments, the separation from my family, serving on the battlefield. It's got me through everything," he said.
His family's strength has also made him strong.
"They were rock hard. They were solid," he said. "They adapted so easily. We would move somewhere and they would just in-process into the neighborhood, church and school. I didn't have to worry about them or think about it. We all did what the Army wanted us to do."
While stationed at Redstone, Benson's family has lived in Clarksville, Tenn. Benson worked and lived in Huntsville during the week, and went home on weekends. The family is now considering where they will live in the first few years of Benson's retirement.
"All the major opportunities I've seen are associated with Huntsville. I want to do work that allows me to still support the Soldier on the front line," he said. "This next move is not the Army telling us to move. It will be Stacey and me making the right decision for our family."