By CAPTAIN DALE WALDON
I grew up in and around Palestine, Texas. I spent every single one of my grammar-aged school years in attendance in the academic hallways of either the Westwood or Palestine independent school districts. By the time I was old enough to head out and enlist in the U.S. Army, I thought I knew pretty much everything that was worth knowing about my hometown and the beautiful East Texas county in which it is positioned.
Several years ago I was leaving Palestine after one of my brief visits home when I decided to pull the car to the side of the road and take a stroll through the veteran’s memorial park on Spring Street. After meandering about for a bit, reading citations of heroism and the names of the numerous service members, I came upon a unique placard that stood apart from the others, and for good reason.
What I found upon this placard shocked me. I can vividly remember the feeling of stunned disbelief that overcame me as I read the words upon this memorial and understood the gravity of their meaning. U.S. Air Force Captain Steven L. Bennett, native son of Palestine, Texas, had been posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. The shock that I experienced was not the effect of the narrative that describes Capt. Bennett’s very courageous and unquestionably honorable actions, rather the understanding that a former resident of Palestine had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and I had never once previously heard about it. How could this be possible?
The Congressional Medal of Honor is generally bestowed upon its recipient, or a representative thereof, by the nation’s president on behalf of the collective Congress of the United States. The award is the highest and most distinguished form of recognition that can possibly be granted to a service member for acts of valor against enemy forces. There is no higher award for service in the entire nation. There are no exceptions. Not one.
The rarity with which the Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded can only be appreciated when one takes the time to consider that in the past eleven and half years of armed conflict exactly eleven such awards have been presented. Indeed, during the quarter century between the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam and the violent attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only three awards were presented. All told, less than 400 such awards have been presented since the end of World War II. Considering all of the battles which have been pitched, all of the lives which have been lost, and all of the heroics which have been displayed by countless millions of American fighting service members in that time, this feeble number lends a small degree of clarity to the sacredness of the award.
Capt. Bennett received his recognition on behalf of actions taken on June 29, 1972. On that particular day, Capt. Bennett risked and ultimately sacrificed his own life for the mere possibility that doing so might save the life of a fellow service member. His risk paid off for that fellow warrior who went on to live a full life after the Vietnam War. Capt. Bennett’s widow and sole surviving child were presented with his award by Vice President Gerald Ford at a ceremony in Washington D.C. in 1974. I would encourage everyone to go read the previously mentioned placard which details the account which led to Capt. Bennett’s death.
So why was I unaware that Palestine was the former home of such a rare and nationally distinguished hero? I cannot say, but I have since learned that my personal ignorance was no anomaly. Since that day, I have asked a countless sum of my fellow hometown citizens if they know of Steven L. Bennett. My question is generally greeted with blank stares or woefully inaccurate guesses. In fact, I can think of only one person who actually knew the name and its significance when queried. How did this happen?
When heroes are laid to rest after losing their lives in the service of the nation we always declare that we shall never forget their sacrifices. What does such a declaration truly mean to us, the ones who remain to enjoy the bounty of such a commitment? Should it not mean exactly what it sounds like it means; that we will never forget? If this is indeed the case, then how do we ensure that our promise is kept? Do we simply remember to remember on the day that has been set aside for remembrance? I suppose that this is indeed a technique, but to what end? After a scant 40 years, have we not collectively forgotten about the sacrifice of Capt. Steven L. Bennett? If we’ve collectively forgotten about Capt. Bennett, a recipient of the nation’s highest honor, then what does that say for our ability to remember all of the countless others?
A continuing remembrance of our fallen warriors is important for a significant number of reasons. If we are collectively unwilling to recognize the weight of such personal sacrifice, then we subject our nation to the danger of a necessity to again require such sacrifice. In simpler terms, if we fail to remember the deaths that are sometimes required to ensure our way of life, then we risk having to require more death. Worse, we risk unnecessarily subjecting one another to such death because we have forgotten how tumultuous a task the call to arms can be.
Can one viable example be rendered to the contrary? Are we willing to shirk such grim undertakings for fear of personal discomfort, knowing that the repercussion of doing so includes an erosion of the very liberties that these dead of war so selflessly secured? For it is an awareness brought about in memorial of these sacrifices which leads the living to an understanding of why such sacrifices were necessary. Conversely, a failure to memorialize leads eventually to the failure to remember the reasons which necessitated such sacrifice, leading in turn to the danger of a requirement for renewal of such sacrifices.
There are certainly less grievous reasons to adhere to our commitment to remember our fallen warriors, but in my humble opinion it is only right that we recognize the sacrifice that is made by these true heroes among heroes. After all, without those who were doomed to lay down their lives for our freedoms, there would be no freedoms. If not for those who have died in efforts to ensure the prosperity of our nation, there would be no nation. Such statements should never be confused as hyperbole, but rather accepted as hard fact regarding this very serious matter.
Now take heart — remembrance is easy. In fact, remembrance is as simple as teaching our younger generations about the commitments that have been made on their behalf. As knowledgeable adults, it is incumbent upon us to tell our children of those unfortunate dead heroes who have guaranteed their prosperity and our collective national sovereignty.
Indeed, it is our responsibility to build a community-wide understanding of the magnitude of importance that is the practice of memorialization of our dead of war. I would challenge anyone to present a single noteworthy argument against the inclusion of lessons on the actions of Capt. Steven L. Bennett in our hometown’s school curriculums. I know that our children are capable of learning and singing the accolades of various local heroes, I’ve seen it first hand, and it is past time that we teach them about those heroes that truly matter.
Please take the time this Memorial Day to escort your children and grandchildren to a few of the communities’ planned events. Walk them through the memorials and read over the many sacred placards with them. Bringing flowers is always an appropriate gesture and allowing our youth to present them may help them to understand the gravity of the event. Encourage the understanding that there is more to Memorial Day than a day out of school and half-burned hot dogs. We are all charged with contributing to the renewal of a true remembrance of our fallen heroes, not in celebration of war or to romanticize the idea of the warrior, but in honor of the fallen and in recognition of the ultimate sacrifice that we can never possibly repay.
God forbid we should ever forget.
Capt. Dale Waldon, a native of Palestine, currently serves in the United States Army at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. He is a 1994 graduate of PHS who holds a B.S. from Tarleton State University and M.A. from The George Washington University. CPT Waldon is married to former Julie Williams, an accomplished scholar, mom and also a 1994 graduate of PHS. Julie currently resides in Palestine with their children, where she teaches undergraduate studies at the university level and patiently awaits his return. CPT Waldon attributes Julie’s expertise of the written language (as well as her much needed editorial oversight) as the inspirational drive that encourages his love of writing.