'Welcome home,' Sgt. Benton: Soldier killed in Vietnam honored

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Dan Serick, a retired U.S. Army sergeant, addresses the crowd at a memorial service for Sgt. Benjamin Benton, a South Mills native killed in the Vietnam War in January 1969, at Westlawn Cemetery in Elizabeth City, Sunday. Next to Serik is Ken Sandridge, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060.

Benton Memorial Service
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Benton Memorial Service
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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Monday, May 21, 2018

Nearly half a century after he was killed in the Vietnam War, Sgt. Benjamin Benton of Camden County received an official welcome home Sunday afternoon.

A crowd of about 65 people attended a remembrance service for Benton, who was killed at age 23 on Jan. 18, 1969, at his gravesite at Westlawn Cemetery in Elizabeth City.

Among those paying tribute to the South Mills native were Mike Gamble and Rick Dalton. Both served with Benton in the 82nd Airborne and were with him the day he was killed.

Gamble, a soft-spoken Alabaman from Tuscaloosa, recalled Benton as a good and unselfish leader. He said it was only because of Benton’s efforts that he survived a firefight with North Vietnam forces that ended up claiming Benton’s life.

At the time, Benton, Gamble and Dalton were part of a detachment of U.S. military personnel serving along the South Vietnamese-Cambodian border trying to prevent North Vietnamese troops from infiltrating South Vietnam.

Gamble said he remembers Benton specifically warning him to get down as they encountered North Vietnamese forces.

"He said, 'Mike, they are in the trees. They're everywhere. Get down.' And that's when I got down," Gamble said.

Gamble said Benton’s warning saved his life. And because of it, he says he’ll “never forget Sgt. Benton.”

"Only by the grace of God did I come home,” Gamble said. “He used Benjamin to make that possible because the day it happened (Benton was killed), Benjamin saved my life. I have never forgotten that day, and I won't forget it.”

Dalton, who's from Bloomington, Illinois, recalled Benton as "a strong but kind man.”

“He was quick with a joker's smile, but he was serious when he needed to be. And he was my friend," he said.

Dan Serik, a retired Army sergeant who led Sunday’s ceremony on behalf of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060, spoke for many at the service when he turned to Gamble and Dalton and said, "Welcome home, Mike and Rick, welcome home."

Alluding to the division in the U.S. over the Vietnam War at the time, Serik noted they, like Benton, never got a proper welcome when they returned home from service in Vietnam. He said Sunday’s service was designed in part to make up for that.

"They did not receive the best welcome home back in those days, but we're here today to welcome them home once again," Serik said.

Benton's sister, Vivian Benton Bridgers, who still lives in South Mills, talked after the ceremony about how the tribute came about. She said someone at Westlawn contacted her about five weeks ago to let her know that Dalton had been trying to locate her brother's gravesite. Bridgers said she ended up speaking to Dalton about arranging some kind of gravesite tribute for her brother.

"But I honestly had no idea that it was going to be anything like this," she said. "I thought these two guys were coming, one from Alabama and one from Illinois, just to come to the grave and pay respects."

Bridgers said she was honored by the service.

“I wish my parents had been alive to see this," she said.

Asked what she would want people to know about her brother, Bridgers said, "That he loved his family. He loved his country. It wasn't his choice to go in the Army, but he served and did what was his obligation to do as a citizen."

Also attending Sunday’s ceremony was Rita Gregory, who attended school with Benton in Camden. She recalled how Benton was so preppy, he once ended up in the principal's office after a teacher noticed he wasn’t wearing any socks under his penny loafers.

“He was part of a small-knit family of boys and girls that grew up together,” she said.

Gregory said when she heard about Sunday’s memorial ceremony, she knew she had to come.

“(Coming) was the right thing to do. I wouldn't have missed it," she said.

Also in attendance Sunday was Robert Dvorchak, a former journalist from the Pittsburgh area who has written about the 82nd Airborne.

Dvorchak said he was overwhelmed by the turnout, particularly for someone who died in a war nearly 50 years ago. He had special praise for the local VFW, the Patriot Guard Riders and Benton's fellow servicemen for participating in the tribute.

"I think we all shed a tear. I think for Vivian,” he said. “We wanted to convey a sense that she had a second family — and that's the family of infantrymen, the 82nd Airborne, the All-Americans. They knew and loved her brother like she did."

Dvorchak said it was important to remember how Benton died.

"He died doing the same things he did in life, saving his guys, thinking of them ahead of himself," he said.