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At Veterans Day event, retired officer urges community service to honor vets

November 16, 2011

The branches of the armed services formed a full tree of thanks at Friday's Veterans Day ceremony in Hood River.

About 150 people attended the 90-minute service at Anderson's Tribute Center, where third-generation military man Shaun Benson issued a challenge to all citizens to help veterans in their community, and to do community service in general, as a tribute to the sacrifices of men and women in the military.

Benson also extended thanks to the families of people in active duty or who have recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan and other foreign lands.

"Thank you for taking care of them while they took care of us," said Benson, Ret. U.S. Army major and director of voluntary service at the VA Medical Center in Portland.

At the request of Benson and Roy Elliott, American Legion 22 commander, the dozens of veterans in attendance twice stood to accept applause for their service.

"I thank each and every one of you, for the times you have served; and some of you are still serving. God bless each and every one of you," Elliott said.

Elliott, who served in the Navy in the 1960s and 1970s, called upon the veterans by conflict or era served. Benson did a recognition roll call of each branch served - Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, Merchant Marine service - as well as Veterans of Underage Military Service (VUMS). Members of the National Guard were also recognized by Jeanne Marie Davis, veterans service volunteer, who coordinated the program. Benson said that at the Veterans Center in Portland, there is a hallway display with "amazing stories of VUMs, who lied to get into the military, some as young as 12 and 13 years old."

"I am very proud of our community for honoring our veterans as we are doing here today. We did not see that when we came home in the '70s. It just makes me proud," Elliott said.

That sentiment was echoed by Army Pfc. Eric Aiken of Odell, who is about to deploy to Afghanistan for his second tour of duty with his field artillery unit.

"I'm just surprised Hood River had a big turnout because we do have a lot of protesters, too," Aiken said. "It's nice to see. And it's nice to be home." Aiken was there with his girlfriend, Tammy, and his sister, Chrystal Aiken Bruce, of Hood River, and her husband, Brian, and their daughter, Rylee, 3.

Elliott called upon veterans of Vietnam, Gulf War, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo and Grenada, Cold War veterans.

"Thank you for keeping the peace," he told them.

"Today, thousands of Americans are serving; they sacrifice in the war on terror in hundreds of locations around the globe, so we may retain our freedoms, which so many people today take for granted," Elliott said. "It is no easy job for these veterans, I can tell you from experience."

Benson's grandfather served in World War II, and he grew up with his Army father moving the family to stations around the U.S., including Fort Lewis, Wash., and Germany.

Benson oversees 900 volunteers in the Portland Medical Center. "People," he said, "who are giving back to men and women who have served our country," including Gorge residents who daily drive 85 miles a day to take veterans to the hospital for medical appointments.

Benson said anyone in the community can help by volunteering as a reading tutor at the high school or for young children through Start Making A Reader Today, assist with field trips, or knitting lap robes or blankets for veterans.

"Be of service and brighten the day of one of the veterans. Sponsor tickets to a soldier home from deployment. Help those folks get back on the town.

"Find your way to help," he said. "You've got the time; you've got talents where you can be of service to those in need."

Benson has served as a combat medic and logistics officer and spent 10 years in the Oregon National Guard, and then in the Army Reserves. His last duty was 2005, when he served 15 months as a trainer in Afghanistan. His duties included road-clearing patrols, and organizing payroll and the "nerve-wracking" task of transporting the money, $50,000 at a time, to disbursement to Afghani soldiers.

"Imagine paying employees, and having 25 percent of them quit and go home," he said. The Afghanis would take their $70 monthly salary home to their families.

"We worked hard to instill the need to keep the mission going," Benson said. "Because of support from friends and families, we conducted community development projects," including supporting girls' elementary and high schools.

"We were fortunate enough to help with several, beyond the mission. We felt compelled to serve those in need. It's what Americans do," he said. Friends and family sent school supplies, books, and backpacks.

"We knew it was going to take the education of the next generation of kids before they have any help," said Benson, adding that in Afghanistan the average literacy rate is 28 percent; 40 percent of men over 15 can read or write and only 12 percent of women.

He read the words of Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin Roosevelt:

"What constitutes an American? Not color, nor race nor religion, not the pedigree of his family nor place of his birth, not the coincidence of his citizenship not his social status or nor his bank account, not his trade or his profession; an American is one who believes in justice and believes in the dignity of man. An American is one who will fight for his freedom on the battlefield, giving up his property and security in order that his children may retain the rights of freedom."

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