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Silent honor guard to be held for fallen soldier

March 19, 2014 - 8:32am

Army 1st Lt. Robert N. Bennedsen planned to start a new life in Hawaii by purchasing his grandparents’ Kona house with his parents and transferring to Schofield Barracks on Oahu. It was a chance to begin another adventure in a place he always loved visiting and considered a home away from home.

But that dream came to an abrupt end just a day after the 25-year-old Vashon Island, Wash., native shared it with his parents. Robert was killed July 18, 2010, by a roadside bomb near Qalat, Afghanistan.

Assigned to the 2nd Squadron 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, Robert was selected by his commander to assume the critical job of leading a logistical support team, which was responsible for transporting vital supplies to remote outposts. It was during one of those runs that his convoy got into trouble, his mother, Tracy Bennedsen, said.

The ambulance in front of Robert’s truck was hit by a roadside bomb and thrown off course. Without hesitation, Robert rushed over to render aid. He could have ordered someone from his unit to help the two soldiers stuck inside and pull the damaged vehicle off to the side. Instead, Robert carried one soldier to safety. It was on his way back to the ambulance to retrieve something the second time that he was hit by an improvised explosive device and killed instantly, Tracy said.

“He was always leading the way,” she said. “It was just his way. He had to be hands-on. He was always a go-getter. He had no fear.”

Robert had only been in Afghanistan for about a month and had just turned 25 that June. His unit was based at Vilseck, Germany, a place he liked because of its close proximity to spectacular mountains for skiing and snowboarding. He was proud to be in the military, a career that filled his appetite for adventure, service and structure. His awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, NATO Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Combat Action Badge, Air Assault Badge, and Basic Parachutist Badge.

Tracy described Robert as a scholar and athlete who excelled in the classroom and on the field. At Vashon High School, he wrestled and played varsity football. He earned statewide recognition for both sports. As a running back, he ran more than 400 yards in one game to set a state record. He also won the state wrestling championship for his 160-pound weight class, she said.

After graduating high school, he attended Seattle University with a full scholarship and earned a business degree. He had many interests, from restoring cars and riding motorcycles to skydiving, “People always ask me what he was most passionate about. The truth is, whatever it was that he was doing at the time,” Tracy said. “He lived life to the fullest.”

Just as his grandparents and parents did, Robert fell in love with the Big Island. He looked forward to vacationing here regularly. Tracy laughed when recalling him and his sister, Jamie, asking once why they had never been to Disneyland. She told them it was because they had visited Hawaii more than 20 times — an answer that suited everyone just fine. She talked about a visit to the famous green sands of Papakolea Beach on Mahana Bay. He joyfully ran ahead of everyone, down the cliff and to the water’s edge.

As an eighth-grader, Robert saved up the money to take scuba diving classes, found an instructor on his own and got certified here. He enjoyed doing any activity involving water, especially fishing with his grandfather and father, Scott. He also befriended the folks at Ocean Eco Tours and was thrilled with every opportunity to explore the underwater wonders with them.

With the death gratuity received, Tracy and Scott purchased the house in Kona in 2010, fulfilling Robert’s wishes. The couple lives here full time and they’re involved with several community organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Gathering of Eagles and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12122’s Ladies Auxiliary.

On Aug. 1, 2010, some of Robert’s ashes were interred at a Washington cemetery and a memorial service was held at his high school stadium. That service involved full military honors and many in their tight-knit, small-town community came to honor him. Robert was also honored by Seattle University, where there’s a plaque for him in the ROTC Building’s Hall of Valor. He was the university’s first war casualty since the Vietnam War. With the help of Ocean Eco Tours, some of his ashes were put at his favorite dive spots in Kona waters.

Robert’s remaining ashes will be interred at noon March 27 at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery in North Kona. He will be the second killed-in-action veteran interred at the cemetery in its nearly 16-year history, said John Grogan, VFW Post 12122 commander.

With the family’s blessing, local veterans have organized a silent honor guard to demonstrate appreciation for Robert, pay their respects and bid farewell. Big Island residents and visitors can take a few minutes to stand silently March 27 along Kaiminani Drive, Queen Kaahumanu Highway or the 1-mile access road leading to the cemetery.

“Having spent much of his short life enjoying Big Island’s waters, 1st Lt. Robert Bennedsen was a Big Islander at heart,” he said. “He was also a true American hero and warrior. Among his many citations, he earned a Bronze Star Medal for his heroic actions and a Purple Heart Medal for his ultimate sacrifice. Like other men and women in today’s military, 1st Lt. Bennedsen was a special person who willingly risked his life so that we can live at home in peace. I think most people of good will truly appreciate those who have died as a matter of honor and duty to our country.”

As the police escorts and family vehicles carrying Robert’s ashes pass by, Grogan recommends veterans and uniformed public safety officers do a hand salute while others place their right hand over their heart. He also asked that flags be displayed.

Following the service, there will be a potluck gathering at VFW Post 12122’s center on Makala Boulevard in Kailua-Kona. The public is welcome at both events. Potluck goers should bring a dish to share. Tracy hopes those who visit the post will choose to support it as it provides a one-stop-shop for veterans and loved ones to meet, share their experiences, socialize and access a wide range of services.

Tracy is grateful for all who pay tribute to her only son. She’s also appreciative of the support her family has received from those associated with the military and patriotic supporters. She said it’s important the public continues to remember the sacrifices of military veterans of current and past wars, as well as pay respect to and help those still serving and deployed.