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Community honors fallen soldier

March 28, 2014 - 12:05am

Family members of Army 1st Lt. Robert N. Bennedsen laid his ashes to rest in West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery at noon Thursday. Residents, visitors and veterans associations from around the island showed up to pay their respects.

About 100 people attended and others stopped along roadways north of Kailua-Kona for a moment of silence as police and fire vehicles escorted a family car bearing the ashes.

Bennedsen died heroically near Qalat, Afghanistan, in July 2010 when he jumped out of his truck and ran to the aid of an ambulance that had been hit by a roadside bomb. Bennedsen carried one soldier to safety before being hit and killed instantly by an improvised explosive devise. He had only been in Afghanistan a month. Bennedsen was 25 years old.

The second serviceman killed in action to be laid to rest in the cemetery, Bennedsen was assigned to the 2nd Squadron 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment. He was leading a logistical support team transporting supplies to remote outposts when he was killed.

For Norma Camero of Waimea, Thursday’s ceremony was reminiscent of one that took place Aug. 18, 2011, the day her son, Christopher Camero, a Marine killed in Afghanistan, became the first serviceman killed in action to be laid to rest here.

“It’s hard to remember it all again,” said Camero. “We’re here to support the second one the way they did for us. Everyone supports and they show their love.”

A native of Vashon Island, Wash., Bennedsen felt the pull of the Big Island, visiting Hawaii more than 20 times with his family. He had planned to buy his grandparents’ home in Kona, but died just one day after revealing that plan to his parents and sister. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal and Defense Service Medal among other military honors.

Bennedsen’s parents, Tracy and Scott Bennedsen, later purchased the home and live in Kona full time.

Two Hawaii Electric Light Co. boom trucks hoisted an enormous American flag over the entrance to the cemetery off Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Kona resident Gaylene Hopson, whose husband served 25 years in the Navy and is now a Hawaii County police officer, unfurled flags in the back of a pickup truck parked along the access road to the cemetery.

“There is a saying that freedom has a taste that the protected may never know,” said Hopson, whose son served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pat and Mike Petryk, longtime friends of the Bennedsen family, remembered an outgoing, active boy who excelled at every sport.

“To know him for five minutes was to be his friend,” said an emotional Pat Petryk outside the cemetery. “He loved, loved the ocean. He was one of those kids that are pretty hard to give up.”

Bennedsen’s ashes arrived in a wooden maroon-colored box and were placed with photographs of the soldier before being interred in a cemetery decorated with kukui nut lei, flowers and combat boots. In the photos, a clear-eyed young man stares expectantly at the camera, like he’s ready for life to happen.

“For him to pass the way he passed is no surprise to us,” Bennedsen’s sister, Jamie Bennedsen Coates, said. “He’s the most amazing man I’ve ever had the privilege to know.”