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Bidding farewell to a son, a soldier, a scholar

Stefan Wolczko sings a song in dedication to Bennedsen. - Sy Bean photo
Stefan Wolczko sings a song in dedication to Bennedsen.
— image credit: Sy Bean photo

Hundreds of people came together Sunday to bid farewell to 1st Lt. Robert Bennedsen, gathering in a stadium where many of them had watched him drive down the field for his beloved high school football team only a few short years before.

They listened to one of his former classmates, Stefan Wolczko, play the guitar and sing “I’ll Never Forget You.” They watched the state’s first gentleman Mike Gregoire give the family the state flag. And they shared stories — dozens of them — about a man with a seemingly unfailing sense of humor.

“He always said, ‘I’m 5-foot-7, average height for a woman,’” Evan Mattingly quipped to laughter as he stood on a flower-bedecked podium before some 600 people.

“He lived life full-tilt, 100 percent, all the time,” he added. “If all of us lived a little bit like Robert, there’d be a lot more smiles.”

But there were also many poignant moments at the ceremony, a memorial service for a venerated Vashon man who was killed July 18 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, three weeks into his first tour of duty. He was 25.

Volunteer firefighter Mike Kirk, fighting back tears, said he plans to wear Bennedsen’s photograph on his helmet. Bennedsen was also a volunteer firefighter, taking on the mantle at age 18.

“When I respond, Robert responds,” Kirk said.

At another tearful mo-ment, Rick Sassara, his high school football coach, said the team would retire his Pirates football team number — 32. The team will also dedicate this season to his memory.

“He will always be our friend, and he will always be our hero,” Sassara said, his voice breaking.

Bennedsen was directing a resupply mission when the ambulance in front of his armored vehicle hit an IED — an improvised explosive device — and was disabled. A platoon leader, Bennedsen quickly got out of his truck to help pull the ambulance off the road when he stepped on another roadside bomb and was killed.

His death came at a tough time in the Afghan war; July, according to news accounts, was the deadliest month since the nine-year conflict began.

But on Sunday, under milky skies at a packed stadium, Bennedsen, a 2004 graduate of Vashon High School, was extolled not only for his courage on the battlefield, but also as a loving son, solid student, excellent athlete and all-around great guy. In story after story, those who took to the podium — standing next to his boots, rifle and helmet — described a young man who loved a good joke and lived life fully.

“Robert had a huge heart and a smile that could change your mood in a second,” said 1st Lt. Dave Stone, his college roommate at Seattle University, where both were in the ROTC.

He described a guy who would hit the sack and be snoring within seconds; who loved to cook, especially if he could throw some Johnnie Walker’s or beer into the concoction; who so relished an adventure that he could not sit still.

Scuba-diving in Hawaii one time, Stone recalled, Bennedsen was gleeful when he slipped into an underwater cave only to race out of it followed by a shark. “He thought that was awesome,” Stone said.

“Robert had so much energy for life,” he added. “His main goal was to have fun.”

Sassara, too, told stories about Bennedsen, using a string of adjectives — “courageous, goofy, strong, happy” — to describe him. One night after a particularly hard defeat, the dejected team trudged off the rain-soaked field when Bennedsen grabbed some mud and shoved it in Sassara’s ear, triggering an all-team mud-wrestling match that astounded the opposing team.

A state wrestling champion, Bennedson, Sassara also recalled, made it clear that he hated the diet he had to follow to maintain his 160-pound weight class: “He was a true pain in the butt,” he said, adding that when Bennedsen had to diet, “Everyone knew about it.”

First Lt. Scott Davis, another good friend and former VHS classmate, said he was sorry he’d never meet “the woman who could marry Robert” or the children he might have had. But he encouraged those gathered to not see Bennedsen’s life as a tragedy.

“At no time was Robert ever motivated by fear,” he told the crowd. If anything, he added, those who loved and admired this remarkable young man should honor him by following in his footsteps: “Live without fear, love without constraint and choose without regret.”

At the end of the two-hour ceremony, an honor guide of Harleys began a slow circuit around the track while two bagpipers played “Amazing Grace.” A black SUV carrying Bennedsen’s family and a white hearse carrying Robert’s remains followed — a final lap around the field for a beloved athlete.

Islanders are encouraged to donate to the Vashon Bounty Club, which supports VHS football, in Robert Bennedsen’s memory. Send donations to the Bounty Club, P.O. Box 621, Vashon, WA 98070.

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